To start on a positive note, let's focus on the key scene in the movie. The one piece that everyone is anticipating and needs to work for the film to have any chance. Last year, the riddle game with Gollum was the scene that everyone loved and allowed them to embrace the film even though it has flaws. This year the conversation is more dangerous and erudite. Bilbo Baggins, novice burglar, confronts "Smaug", the dragon responsible for wiping out the dwarf kingdom of Erebor as well as Dale, the nearby town of men that now lays in ruin at the foot of The Lonely Mountain. Many of us remember the Rankin/Bass animated version of The Hobbit from the 1970s. The dragon was voiced by one of the great pieces of voice casting ever, Richard Boone. His sonorous and gravelly voice fit the serpent like qualities of the character perfectly. His self aggrandizing tone matched the ego of the beast and revealed his weakness. Boone is long gone and when the films were finally announced we played a game; name the actor who would best voice Smaug. At our house we were three for three, all of us picked one voice that we thought would be perfect, and it is not the one that was cast. Imagine our disappointment when we saw that Benedict Cumberbatch would voice the dragon and not our unanimously agreed upon Peter O'Toole. Of course at that point we were not familiar with Mr. Cumberbatch and his vocal talents. I still have not seen his Holmes, but he was excellent in "Star Trek: Into Darkness" and so I had high hopes. He manages to live up to those hopes very well. He brings menace and temperment to the right boil to make Smaug more than a monster but a real character as well. Check out the last thiry seconds of the trailer below to get a preview.
In addition to being well played vocally, the dragon is vividly realized in a visual medium. He moves convincingly and looks very realistic. In one of the many departures from the book, there is a long confrontation sequence and chace between Smaug and the troop of dwarfs seeking his destruction. Like several other sequences in the film, it goes on a little long and is not entirely needed but it is cleverly put together and entertaining to watch.
A second example of the weakness of the film is the long chase of the dwarfs as they escape from imprisonment in a elf kingdom by riding in barrels. What was whimsical and somewhat comic in the children's book that I read to my kids, becomes an elaborate set piece featuring a violent battle scene at a water gate and then an extended hunt and chase battle along the path of the river by which the barrels are returned to Laketown. The sequence is well staged and has some amazing stunts and visual tricks to show us but it goes on much too long and it could easily be taken out of the film since it does nothing to advance the narrative and only exits to make this an action film on the same level as the movies from ten years ago. Conversely, the interlude at the beginning of this chapter of the trilogy, features the character "Beorn" and it goes by much too quickly. It was a good change of pace moment in the book but it does not get a chance to allow us to reacquaint with the band of adventurers before they are quickly pursued into Mirkwood. The pace of the film is constantly moving quickly, which is surprising since the story is so padded. For a nearly three hour film, it never seems to slow down enough to take in the events or personalities that we encounter. They are interludes between the long fight sequnces that have been interjected in a half dozen places in the story.
If your favorite parts of the "Lord of the Rings" films were the battle at Helms Deep or the War at the gates of Gondor, than this film will be perfect for you. Orcs and Goblins crawl through forests and towns and attack at nearly every opportunity. There are flashback sequences and parallel story lines and there is even a romantic subplot thrust into this film. I can say that even though the tie in to the later stories is not needed here, it was actually assembled very well. Strings of connection have been forged where none existed before but they are not so much grafted on as weaved into the story. The scale of the movie is much larger than the original book required, and it dilutes the product even though it is prepared well and cooked expertly. Gandalf is a much more central figure in this version of "The Hobbit" and sometimes that means that Bilbo gets a little lost. The actors are all playing their parts with great fervor and some of the dwarfs are finally stepping out of the crowd and establishing a little more personality distinction. The scenes in the Kingdom of the Mirkwood elves do feel like the drama is being ratcheted up rather than building naturally. On the other hand, the sequence in Laketown, except for the orc attack, feels much more like a story that is telling itself rather than being forced on us. Bard as a character is perfectly cast and his somber demeanor fits with the story. I did think his imprisonment made very little sense and there are a couple of similar glitches in other places as well.
This time I splurged and we saw this in 3D IMAX with the 48fps speed film. I understand the criticism that it got last year and there were several spots in which the high speed shooting makes the picture less cinematic and more obviously set based. Some elements look much better with the high speed film but others look almost videotaped rather than filmed. There did not seem to be any consistent reason that this was true. It was not as if all of the action scenes worked but the exposition scenes looked off. Both types of sequences worked and failed at different points and I am hard pressed to say why although I can say I noticed it. For a story that has been building to a confrontation with a dragon, it ends a bit abruptly. This will certainly make the start of the next and final chapter more memorable but it left the audience a little short this morning. The critical praise from the Lord of the Rings films was deserved, it was an intricate story that was massively complex and stitched together in an effective way. The reason the Hobbit films have not had the same kind of support is not a lack of talent, vision or skill. The reason these movies are not as revered as the other series comes down to the fact that this simple story is being reverse engineered. As Peter Drucker said:
“There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.”