The characters coming to life on the screen is certainly one of the biggest pluses of these movies, so I'll spend most of my time on them, easily, and gladly. The first new character we meet is Mikael Persbrandt as Beorn, and he's the only character with an unexpanded role... so far. But he's still adapted well -- very wild and intimidating. We already got a sneak peek at Lee Pace as Thranduil in the last film, and now we see him fully characterized as the elegant and cold elf-king, and it's a striking success.
|I know everyone says this, but, his crown!|
Also hailing from Mirkwood, Tauriel is beautiful, powerful and graceful in the hands of the very cool Evangeline Lilly, and no longer can people call her "made up" as she's identified as the captain of the guard. Her role is certainly expanded though, and welcome. And even more at home, I dare say, than her superior, prince Legolas. Orlando Bloom returns to play him, but still doesn't get much substance to work with. However, he doesn't have any Captain Obvious moments either (my brother and I were disappointed) and his elven fighting skills are better than ever and he and Tauriel tear it up with cool choreography in quite a few exciting action sequences. The worst thing about him is that the light blue contacts very often look distractingly unnatural.
|Elves. For fighting like dancing.|
Now my man Bard, who was a favorite in the book; I now realize I had just cause to be nervous for this character's expansion and characterization -- I had no idea of what to expect going in, but fortunately, what we get is a wonderful surprise. Bard is a meaty character worthy of every extra scene plus some, and Luke Evans digs in with contagious gusto, effortlessly carrying his scenes, and making it unavoidable to not accept and root for this super cool classic hero completely. When he runs across a row of tiny boats, then surfs the last one with ease was the moment I realized I'd been suckered by a slick bargeman (and a certain director) and didn't mind. Also working well to his advantage is giving him a regular everyman job and kids, who are invented characters, and some actually worthwhile ones.
|The name's Bard. Bard the Bowman.|
Smaug is that one all-important element that made everyone excited and hopeful for this movie, and I built my anticipation up so much it seemed unlikely that I could be anything but underwhelmed, but instead I was stunned. He's incredible -- red and gold, long and enormous, beautiful and menacing, classic and imaginative -- in the first full shot of him as he rises out of his vast mountain of gold, I was completely awed. And then he began to speak. And this is more than I dared hope for, even though I knew Benedict Cumberbatch was providing vocals and motion-capture, but not only does he sound like Cumberbatch... he looks like him too. More than you would think a dragon even could, and as he moves and speaks you see Cumberbatch embody a majestic, villainous beast, and it's simply incredible. Cumberbatch exceeds expectations yet again, and Jackson proves he can still make something truly amazing.
|"Truly -- the tales and songs fall utterly short..." If only I could show you what Bilbo sees!|
For the characters we already know and love from the previous film, Bilbo still stands out, usually an ironic head and shoulder above the rest. Martin Freeman is still the only person for the role, and yet is not content to ride the current he already has going for him. Bilbo is getting developed wonderfully well, adding courage, confidence, and... obsession, and gets his share of well-deserved great moments as the titular hero. Thorin is also on a great path of development, guided very well by Richard Armitage. He is growing him so gradually more and more obsessed, desperate and rash that you hardly notice it, until you're surprised by some out-of-character response, and then realize it actually wasn't. I can hardly wait to witness the conflict between these two in the next movie -- the tension is already palpable.
|"If this is to end in fire, then we shall all burn together!" Let's just hope Thorin doesn't try to pull a Denethor...|
One big change from the book here is that as the company leaves Lake-town, four dwarves are left behind. It seemed at first to be a ridiculous, pointless idea, but the result was surprisingly helpful, as, by splitting up the dwarves, it much easier to develop them individually. The recipient of most of the available development is Kili, (Aidan Turner) who also gets a little extra in Mirkwood when he is smitten with Tauriel. In this movie he jumps from the status of "one of the dwarves" to being undoubtedly his own character, and I only wish they all could get that treatment. Still, others get their varying amounts of attention, Fili (Dean O'Gorman) Bofur (James Nesbitt) Oin (John Callen), and Balin (Ken Scott) getting a noticeable extra.
|Dwarves. Can't deal with 'em, can't kill 'em, 'cause you don't have any decent weapons.|
Ian McKellen and Gandalf spends most of his time away from the dwarves doing his wizard things, sometimes with Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) (and Benedict Cumberbatch, in the movie twice, voicing the Necromancer) and while I found that plot-line to be more boring than the rest, it's still Gandalf, so of course he's still great.
In fact, there are only two big things that truly bothered me.
One: The orcs. There is a little merit to having them chase the dwarves, and their appearance -- like urukai on steroids with a twisted fashion sense -- is forgivably silly. Whenever there's a scene with just the orcs though, they speak orcish, and it's very annoying on the ears. Plus those scenes are a waste, because all they ever say is the same: "Let's go kill the dwarf scum!
Two: (Spoiler) In the climax of the film, when the dwarves come up with an elaborate and far-fetched plan to kill Smaug, lead him through the mountain, and then try to drown him in molten gold. I only realized afterward that it was supposed to be the climax! (End Spoiler) The whole sequence is uninspired and cheap feeling, with only one very cool shot after the fact.
|Dwarves overlook the desolation of Smaug -- the ruins of Dale.|
For the most part though, the action sequences were much improved, as are the majority of adapted scenes. More things are added than changed. And in fight scenes, nothing looks like a video game this time. The uneventful escape down the river in barrels was turned into a lengthy sequence, but happily it wasn't boring or (much) annoying. The spiders' episode was probably my favorite bit of adapting though, probably mostly because it was like the book, just in movie form. And the highly anticipated scene of Bilbo meeting Smaug, while not quite reaching the level of the Riddles in the Dark writing-wise, is still is nothing but impressive.
I have come to terms with it -- these movies are not like the book I love, and since I loved Tolkien's Hobbit first I will probably always love it most. Some of The Desolation of Smaug was pure brilliancy and truly awesome, and some draws contempt from that loyal fan in me, but still I left the movie excited with anticipation from the cliffhanger ending, loving the characters, and happy for the improvement on An Unexpected Journey, so how can I deny the truth: that, with all its flaws, I found a way to love it anyway.