Last night I went to the midnight premiere of The Desolation Of Smaug, in glorious 2D and 24fps, the same way I saw the LOTR films. Then this afternoon when I woke up, I decided to also see it in 3D and 48fps. I have now seen it twice (and a bit, if you count the twenty minutes during which the 3D didn't work correctly on the right eye side of the screen, so that the film was stopped and started again), and as such, I can now tell you that I loved it, but it has some issues.
The Desolation Of Smaug suffers from the same thing as The Two Towers did in its position as middle part of a trilogy: it doesn’t have a proper beginning or a proper ending. With hardly any build-up, we are dropped into the middle of the action and many, many chases and action scenes later the story cuts off without a real climax. We always knew this would be the case, though. I only feel that most of the characters aren’t really evolving either. In the first film (which is still my favourite), we see Bilbo evolve from reluctant adventurer to hero, we see Thorin realise that people who aren’t Dwarves can be pretty cool, too. In the second, everyone stays more or less on the same level. Bilbo continues to be clever and badass, Thorin continues to angst and posture, the other Dwarves continue to be unremarkable (at least to the general public).
What’s also noticeable is that this film resembles the book even less than the previous one did. The romance between Tauriel and Kili being the foremost of the deviations, there is also a split of the Dwarven company halfway through the film, Bard the Bowman getting a couple careers on the side as bargeman, smuggler, family man and leader of the opposition, and Thorin & co. having a crack at confronting Smaug (in the book they never even see the dragon). Strangely, none of these really bothered me very much. Indeed, even Tauriel I didn’t hate as much as I thought I would.
My main criticisms on the first film also apply to the second, though: it drags in places, some sequences go on longer than they really should, and with a lot of the effects you get the idea that they were only left in because it would look neat in 3D and/or high frame rate. Peter & co. definitely indulged on the action scenes, but I would have liked to see more character moments. If I sit through nearly three hours of action scenes, I should at least be made to care about the characters in peril.
Now, on to the good stuff, which is, first and foremost, Martin Freeman and his amazing acting. I continue to be amazed by how every facial expression, every gesture, every movement conveys flawlessly what Bilbo is thinking and feeling at any given time. Whether it’s physical comedy, strong emotion, paralysing fear; he does it all with complete honesty, conviction and vulnerability, while still keeping true to the character. Bilbo may be a hero now, but still he is never reckless and definitely not fearless. He may be brave enough to face down a dragon, but he will do it while trembling and squeaking with fright. He may fight and kill monsters who attack him and his friends, but there is still that little moment at the end of realising what he’s done and not feeling all that great about it.
For all that, my favourite Bilbo moment is the one where he climbs up the trees of Mirkwood and sees the sun again. His simple happiness at feeling the sunlight and seeing the butterflies feels straight from the book and yet superbly true to Freeman’s interpretation of the character: remember that first glimpse of Bilbo in An Unexpected Journey, just sitting in his garden with his face tilted up into the sunlight? And again, in the Extended Edition, enjoying the sunlight in Rivendell with a smile on his face? That is the aspect of Bilbo I love the most: he is ultimately still the hobbit.
Richard Armitage continues to humanise Thorin with his looks of sexy angst, but it doesn’t work quite as well as in the first film. Of course it is difficult to keep the audience’s sympathy when he starts coming over more and more like an insensitive prick as the film progresses and the treasure starts taking hold of him. His hard-won affection and respect for Bilbo that was the major character development in the first film is barely acknowledged, apart from the bits where he listens to what the hobbit has to say. He doesn’t really think much of leaving Kili, his sister-son, behind when he’s gravely injured, and even expresses surprise when Fili finds his brother’s well-being more important than the quest. He has a nice moment when entering Erebor again for the first time, but then sends Bilbo down on his own to face the dragon, doesn’t call him by his name, and actually holds him at swordpoint when he returns without the Arkenstone. I know this is all true to the book, but why spend so much time trying to make us like him in the first film, then make him look like a dick again in the second? We’re supposed to care when he dies in the third one, you know.
Gandalf doesn’t get to do much in this film, really. Like in the book, he buggers off pretty quickly to attend to more important matters, though he is at least mildly conflicted about it. Then he hangs out with Radagast in some ruins and hangs out with the Necromancer in some other ruins. That’s the extent of his role in this film. I mean, if you’re going to show what Gandalf was up to all those chapters he wasn’t there for, I don’t think this is the way to do it. Every time they cut away from the main story I just wanted to get back to it.
Then there are all the new characters. As I said earlier, I could have done with a bit more time to get to know them. Prominent book characters like Beorn and the Master of Lake Town really only get one scene, and even Thranduil, who is on all the posters, only appears in a handful of scenes himself. The most screentime for new characters goes to Tauriel, Bard and of course Smaug.
To start with the dragon: I loved him. Benedict Cumberbatch is a fantastic choice: Smaug has the sort of dialogue that would sound ridiculous coming from anyone else, but Cumberbatch sells every word. The digital wizards at Weta have done a superb job bringing the rest of him to life; if they don’t get an Oscar for this I shall be very cross indeed.
Bard I liked, although I felt he was given a bit too much screentime compared to the other characters, and his children didn’t really add anything to the story.
Tauriel I was surprised to find not quite as annoying as expected. Yes, she’s still a completely made-up character but she displays more personality than, say, Legolas does.
Because yes, of the returning characters it was actually Legolas that bothered me the most. As my brother already very aptly summed it up: he’s rather become a parody of himself. Look at all the cool things we can make him (and especially his digital double) do in 3D and high frame rate! Seriously, guys, it is lovely to see him again, but come on. There was no need for that many fight scenes, except to show off.
And speaking of those fight scenes, whose idea was it to swap out Azog for a completely new character halfway through the story? I wasn’t fond of Azog to begin with, but we know his motivation and connection with Thorin. Now we’re supposed to accept him passing the task over to another random Orc we’ve never seen before, in a painfully contrived move to make sure Thorin has someone to fight in the climax of the third film.
With all the build-up in this film and hardly any payoff at the end, I am very curious how this is going to wrap up next year. Already there is dissent in the Dwarven ranks: Balin calling Thorin on his behaviour towards Bilbo, Fili and Oin separating from the group to stay with Kili against Thorin’s wishes. What will happen when Bilbo defects and Thorin descends into madness? How will the Dwarves react to that? Which side will they choose? I am far more interested in that than I am in drawn-out fight scenes in 3D, if I’m perfectly honest, and I do hope they’ll do it justice. For now, though, I will go and see this one again and again until the Extended Edition comes out.