[SPOILERS] The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug — first impressions

[The spoiler ban for this film is now lifted. Feel free to discuss it in comments as appropriate. Having successfully avoided any further information about the film after the second trailer, and having not read any press reviews or reactions by fellow fans, I’m going to allow myself the unreserved pleasure of writing down my uninfluenced reactions. And then going to bed because it’s very early morning and two of these films in a row is quite a bit.

Note also that I am not commenting on the faithfulness to Tolkien issue. I haven’t reread the book since sometime in the spring, if I recall correctly, and while I remember the general outlines of the story I don’t have the exact details down. So I was really watching this for its merits as a film that tells a story, not as a reflection of Tolkien. Brief note — the guys sitting next to me in the theater, when the credits came up and it said “based on a book by J.R.R. Tolkien,” laughed and said, “well, that was brave of them.” So I stipulate to it not being a one to one reproduction of the book. For me as a viewer that is an unimportant factor in my enjoyment of the film. Ymmv.]

***

Wow.

I don’t see how this film will be nominated for any awards for acting or drama, but it truly is a triumph, and while I liked An Unexpected Journey, this film makes strong improvements on its predecessor. When I see this one again, which I plan to do as soon as possible, I will need to make sure not to drink anything in the theater because there really isn’t a place where you can go out to use the facilities.

I think the audience agreed with me. When the film ended, there were about three seconds of silence. Before people started clapping.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug does not have a slow second. While there were parts of it that were drawn out further than I felt they needed to be, they weren’t boring. Just longer than they needed to be to make the point (I thought Legolas’ head stepping stone exploits were one example).

So, first things first. I saw this film in the Marcus Bay Cinema in Ashwaubenon (a suburb of Green Bay), where it had been ridiculously cold all day. It is a smaller theater and the crowd was correspondingly smaller than last  year, which was really an event. There was one cosplayer, a sixty-year-old history teacher. Also, I would say I was the third oldest person in the theater, and much of the film’s target audience has school tomorrow. It was not the mob scene of last year (in a bigger city), but the crowd was friendly (Wisconsinites talk to each other aimlessly) and the general mood in the room was exuberant. Probably 3/4 of the guests were male. The chat before the film was, we need to see AUJ, but it is fairly slow in spots.

Sometime I need to write about my renewed and revised impressions of HFR — but not tonight. I saw AUJ in HFR I think three times — every other time was in 2D 24 fps. One general observation — Jackson is absolutely right that it makes action scenes on dark sets much more legible. A second general impression — I felt it was used much more effectively this time.

There was an hour and fifteen minute intermission between the films — which I used to doze. Good that I did, because the beginning of TDOS hits fairly hard. There is still a bit of “we have to fill in the plot” feel in the first fifteen minutes or so — but the scene in the tavern between Gandalf and Thorin is gripping and sets the stage for the entire story. Also the shots of both Thorin and Gandalf are gorgeous — atmospheric and tense. I can see now what Armitage meant about being allowed to just sit down at a table and *act* with McKellen. Excellent chemistry together.

Thought Michael Persbrandt was perfectly cast. I think this was a role for which Armitage was considered, and I could see why they would think that would be a good match but I loved Persbrandt here.

Martin Freeman was, well, Martin Freeman. I’ve been there before and won’t rehash it here. He’s not quite as badly overbalanced here as he was in AUJ. But the “oh, I’m terrified” facial expressions really start to get on my nerves.

I think I’m going to start calling Tauriel “the affirmative action elf.” Tauriel didn’t ruin the film for me, but it also added nothing. While there’s nothing wrong with Evangeline Lilly’s performance (her elvish strut is a bit mannered, but then so is Orlando Bloom’s), the main reason to add a character to a classic story is because there’s a flaw in the story, or to add an important component. This character does neither. The Hobbit did not need a love story in order to draw women in — guess what, Tolkien has plenty of female fans without an additional character — nor did it need an additional kick-ass elf. I’m not sure it needed Legolas either but that was obviously a marketing ploy. Orlando Bloom was fine.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice as the Necromancer was spectacular. Also loved the effects in those scenes.

Lee Pace, OMG, Lee Pace. This could see easily have been a campy performance and it’s always, always teetering on the edge, especially with the way the camera lingers on every detail of Thranduil’s costume, and the way the effects exaggerate the characters’ physical proportional contrast, but Armitage was right that this was one of the strongest moments in the film. Thranduil absolutely does push Thorin’s buttons — every single time — and Pace draws a lot of things that tell us the Thorin story out of Armitage really quickly — the kingly mien, the overweening pride, the anger, and, most particularly, most particularly, the shame. To me, in this scene, Thorin refuses Thranduil’s deal not out of pride but out of shame. I’ll have to see the film again to flesh that out, but the rage that Thorin shows Thranduil when he wishes dragon fire on his people is really channelled, dangerous, and at the same time a clearly visceral barrage.

Barrel scene: great fun to watch, especially Stephen Hunter’s bit when Bombur’s barrel leaves the river. Too long, kind of, although there are many amusing visual tricks. But it was a problem for me last time as well that I felt the film was designed for the video game generation, a group to which I do not belong.

Nice change of pace when the journey to Laketown scenes begin and things become dark and damp and dank. James Nesbitt’s daughters are cute. I could probably have taken or left Luke Evans and Stephen Fry in these roles. Fry was just past competent — no energy; his vibe was so low that the set was more megalomaniac than he managed to be.

I don’t care that much about orc fight scenes if Armitage isn’t in them.

Love the scenes where the gold is sliding around. Reminded me of how grain is sucked down into a silo and you’d better not get caught in it.

And I think this brings to me to the two things I enjoyed about this film most. One surprised me — I did not expect to be all that impressed by Cumberbatch as Smaug. I’ve seen the actor in a few things but never fallen in love. Admittedly a lot of this was done with special effects. But the edge of his growl was mesmerizing, as was his delivery. I did not sense what Armitage said about this, that Cumberbatch was creating the physical movements of the dragon (as opposed to Andy Serkis as Gollum, where I do see that happening).  Nor did I fin Smaug all that particularly populated with intellect (another thing Armitage said). But all in all I very much felt the awe before this rather astounding being — something I was not expecting, as after all I know that it’s just a computer simulation. Something about the voice was, indeed, transfixing in a way that transcended Freeman’s constant annoying “oh, I am so terrified” facial expressions and made me forget Bilbo was even there.

And I guess that brings me to Armitage, who turns in a great performance despite occasionally problematic lines. We definitely see the transformation he’s been talking about with regard to his attitude toward Bilbo. We certainly see the camera observing and recording the wonderful sort of moments we know he produces without thinking (his reaction in Beorn’s house, for instance, when Beorn bluntly states the dwarves are running out of time, or his reactions to Gandalf in the tavern in Bree or when Gandalf says he’s leaving the dwarves at the entrance to the Mirkwood). We also see some great exchanges — as in the scene with Thranduil mentioned above, or in a few of the exchanges with Bard.

More than that, however, he got a lot more scope for various levels of the Thorin character here. In particular I find myself thinking of his oft-repeated statements that he used Shakespeare to prepare for this role. I had read that very much as him performing those speeches for himself as a way of psyching himself up. But I think we saw a much more potentially Shakespearean Thorin this time around, in combination with an occasional quasi-Beowulfian honor / kingship vibe. I definitely saw shades of “This day is called the feast of Crispian,” particularly as he was selling himself to the humans at Laketown, or as he stood before the door of Erebor and said that people would rue the day they made fun of the dwarves quest (or however he put it). The role we know he’s most familiar with is Macbeth, and there were two key moments where I thought, this is Thorin channeling Macbeth. One was — and I can’t remember where this was, it might have been in the scene where Balin is chiding him while they’re waiting to see what happens with Bilbo, where Balin is saying “I worry for you” and it looks like he’s having a moment of vertigo — that sort of moment of angstiness that Macbeth occasionally lets out, as if he’s not entirely sure of his goals even as he pursues them. The other was a very aggressive permutation of the tone Macbeth’s “vaulting ambition” speech in act 1, scene 7 of the play (which begins, if it were done when ’tis done …) — this seems to be the delivery mode behind the “if this is to end in fire” line — the sort of self-destructiveness of the person who thinks he is doing something that lies in the path of his fate. I have to think about whether I see Richard III her at all — maybe towards the end.

I have to think about this more, because on the one hand, Armitage is often giving his typical restrained performance here — never overdoing it. For instance, think of his scenes insulting Smaug — the delivery is calculating as opposed to bombastic. The one exception to this to me was the scene on the steps in Laketown, where his gestural language was so large as well — and then to bring it down to the silence and stillness of “I have the only right” was quite masterful (as was the look on his face when he realizes Bard is Girion’s descendant). On the whole I would say that once again we get a performance from Armitage where his body language is at least as good as if not superior to his delivery of lines — he is so good at inhabiting the physical stances and emotional body language of his characters that this is the first thing you notice. I also think, quite frankly, that Armitage just doesn’t get the same quality of lines that Smaug or Gandalf or Thranduil got. Many of them feel awkward. But when he does get a good, poetic line, his delivery is absolutely never even approaching the emotional or vocal limits of the moment in the script. It’s also amazing how stubbornly determined he can make Thorin’s face look — as in the scene where he’s gliding down the river of gold.

Armitage was also absolutely right when talked about how beautiful Smaug was made. Indeed.

OK. Lots of stuff to think about for the next time I see it — but

a) I was very excited by the whole film, its feel, its tempo, and most of its performances; I was especially gripped by the ending.

b) I thought Armitage’s performance definitely expanded and grew in comparison to the previous film. He got more chance from the script to show his kingly stuff, but his performances of kingship in particular were intriguing and will repay watching.

It’s nice to go to bed so satisfied. I remember last year there was so much adrenaline in my system that it took a day to wear off. Tonight I’m just pleased and looking forward to another look at this film.

Tomorrow, I look forward to hearing what everyone else thought!

~ by Servetus on December 13, 2013.

16 Responses to “[SPOILERS] The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug — first impressions”

  1. I can’t read it ! 😦 ( I can only bite myself in the a*s with anger and wait two more weeks 😀 )

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  2. I enjoyed reading your review. You may have convinced me to go and see it after all.

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  3. My thoughts are also going to have to wait until after I’ve digested and slept, but I’m commenting in order to subscribe to the conversation.

    On the whole, pleased. And also suffering the downswell of adrenaline.

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  4. I will read it after I’ve seen it in 9 hours, which will be also after midnight for me, but I doubt I will fall asleep easily after the experience!

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  5. I loved it. My favourite characters apart from Thorin is Thranduil and Smaug. Just LOVE them. Especially Thranduil. I mean, gosh. You and I have very similar thoughts on the film, I’m glad! Have to see it again SOON! Can’t wait.

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  6. From what I’ve seen in the previews, Lee Pace is absolutely beautiful in this movie. And his performance is the only one who even begins to compare to RA’s Thorin. Except maybe Smaug and I haven’t seen him yet. He’s the other reason I want to see the movie.

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  7. I agree with you about Richard Armitage’s performance.
    I think the movie don’t get out of the love story between Tauriel and kili
    About Legolas , he is just a good ” marketing ploy” .
    In the last part of the film ,The scene between Smaug and Bilbo is too long. I was disturbed,by the interruptions between the different plots : Dragon, Gandalf, Legolas in Lake-town, Tauriel rescuing Kili (ridiculous) .
    When you say “Thorin refuses Thranduil’s deal not out of pride but out of shame” ,what kind of shame are you talking about ?,

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  8. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful review after a very long sojourn in a movie theater seat. I was very happy to read it before I see the film because I have a tendency just to get lost in sight and sound and over-stimulation if I don’t have things I am looking for. And I have such respect for your analyses, it gives me me something to look forward to besides the sight/sound/sensory overload!

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  9. Going tonight……………………………..3D but only 24frames etc

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  10. Can’t wait to comment. In hospital to fix rebellious leg which was broken. By the time I see it next week, it will be old news by then. My two cents will be added then though stale they may be. I’m fairly sure we will be discussing this movie for at least a few more weeks. Love your breakdown of the movie and you did not spoil it for me at all.

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  11. Great review. I will have to see the film again to do any full justice because there is just so much action going on. I can barely touch on it all really. Overall it was beautifully done. I was at a 9 am showing and there was hardly anyone there. That was a bit disappointing really because having an audience adds to the pleasure really. I will have to go on a Sunday I think when there will be more people. Now I enjoy all the orc fights really and I liked Tauriel but I can say that I didn’t care for the scene with Tauriel taking over to “cure” Kili. That was too much like LOTR and Arwen. I know they were pushing the thing with her and Kili but that could have been done differently. Otherwise I enjoyed Tauriel very much and her rebellion against Thranduil. Lee Pace was fantastic and at least for me it answered the question about what he wanted from under the mountain. I think I understand what you mean about Thorin’s shame but I feel there was a great deal of anger there as well. It was a great scene and the look on Thranduil’s face was priceless just for those few moments. Laketown was amazing wasn’t it? I think I agree that Luke Evans was okay as Bard but not all that important in playing the part. Same with Fry, not enough screen time for him really to develop much. The dragon, well Smaug is awesome. Benedict did an amazing job and if any award is given out for special effects it should go to creating that dragon. He’s wonderful but then I’m partial to dragons. I agree there were drawn out scenes.

    We had so many trailers before the film started and like you Serv I thought the same thing, no drinks before this film because there is no good point to get up and use the restroom. You do get a hint of Thorin’s beginning sickness as he holds Bilbo at swordpoint but as well you also begin to see the ring’s power over Bilbo during the spider attacks.

    Maybe it was just that there was so few people in my theater but I didn’t hear laughing during the humorous parts of the film either. Maybe I just had a group of people who really hadn’t read the book but just thought they should see the film. .

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  12. Personally I thought Beorn got a bit short changed, but that is more due to him being my favourite character from the book.

    Tauriel as a kick ass elf could have been perfectly fine, but like you the alluded love triangle irked me the most. It’s such a patronising cliché from Hollywood, women need romance to like a movie. No, no, we don’t. Really, we don’t. Legolas was an added bonus, not necessary, but acceptable. I did like the little jibe between him and Gloin, touching on the future we all know.

    I completely approve of Smaug, albeit a bit too talkative, but an amazing beast indeed. Cumberbatch’s voice was just so booming, yes, Smaug is fantastic.

    Thorin: bitterness and anger, but indeed also showing the slow change in his character. Hamlet and Macbeth rolled in one, at least to me. The obsession slowly creeping in, but not for gold, but for reclaiming his kingdom and honour.

    I definitely think it’s an improvement to AUJ, but there are still elements I wish weren’t there, or at least not as long. To me, it’s still a bit too long-winded, then again I am more a book purist, so it’s not surprising. 😉

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  13. Too many thoughts to relay at 1 a.m. I will probably need a second viewing anyway. Was it just me or was the beginning too rushed? I understand why they did it (more screen time between Smaug and the company), but that doesn’t mean I have to like it, right?
    Of course the actings were superb, nothing bad to say about that.

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  14. for me , seeing the film today , Richard out acted everyone , I thought he was breathtaking he stole the film ! (..in my opinion.) .Want to go and see it again .The expressions and feelings he conveys as his character slides into the gold sickness is staggering .,His eyes glitter with determination to reclaim their gold and homeland , his voice …has so much feeling behind it I was close to tears a couple of times .I know I am bias but he is the star .

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  15. Now that I’ve finally seen the movie, I feel that I can read and comment on your reviews!
    I really liked Tauriel. I think this story desperately needed a female character, and she was both warm-hearted and a ferocious fighter. Furthermore, I think the romantic element did have to be added, because it is something that will play out in the third movie.
    Besides, elves and dwarves have a long history together and it should be shown that there are moments when the two can work together, can get to like each other, be attracted to each other and value one another despite their differences.

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