If you're planning to see the film this weekend, prepare yourself. The movie is epic in both scope and nature, with rousing cinematography and plot twists that will either irate or satisfy. While it deviates greatly from the book, the storyline manages to capture the essence of the tale while drawing in the audience with every scene. This review contains no spoilers (despite my worst temptations).
This film picks up where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey left off, with Bilbo, Gandalf and their dwarf party being pursued by Azog the Defiler and his not-so-merry band of orcs. Unlike the first film, Jackson takes the time to let his characters go deeper in each scene. This is especially evident during a "conversation" between Thorin and Thranduil (the elven king) when the former insults the latter, invoking a response from the Ancient Elf that includes a direct reference to the War of Wrath (The Silmarillion). Once again, the audience will see Gandalf tested in a battle of sorcery, the elves kick ass, and Legolas once again prove he's a force of nature. Additionally, the populace will witness a new character, Tauriel (not present in any of the Tolkien books), get wrapped up in a love triangle that ends up being as unexpected as her existence. In addition to all this, you will see a dragon... correction, you will see the dragon.
As to be expected, Sir Ian McKellen is superb with his portrayal of Gandalf. Also, Martin Freeman greatly improves his version of Bilbo Baggins adding several new dimensions to his performance. Orlando Bloom reprises his role as Legolas in this film, looking beefier and more solemn in this film than in the LOTR, but no less perfect. The true star of this film, however, is Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).
As an avid fan of fantasy, I have seen every movie that has included a dragon, from the 1980s flick Dragonslayer to the horrendous Reign of Fire. Never, not in any film or TV series, has there been such a portrayal. It was unlike anything the audience had ever seen. This was made possible by impressive CGI and Jackson's motion capture of Cumberbatch's facial expressions as he read the lines. With every raised eyebrow and pupil dilation, the audience gets a dragon that is so intense it's difficult to decipher between he and the "real" characters on the screen. If watching the film in 3D (recommended), it is possible to observe the audience sinking in their chairs as Smaug invades Bilbo's personal space. Could we have expected any less from Jackson or Cumberbatch? Of course not.
So, that's the good stuff. The bad stuff can be summarized by the fact that this movie deviates so heavily from the actual story, it could be distracting for those avid fans who believe the different mediums of film and book can co-exist. As mentioned earlier, there is no Tauriel anywhere in Tolkien literature (trust me) nor does Legolas appear in the Hobbit. While there are many other "creative liberties" taken by Jackson, it does nothing to hinder the positive experience most audiences will have. If possible, put aside the expectation that book and movie should match and enjoy the film. If that fails, enjoy the dragon. As an avid Tolkien fan and Silmarillion junkie (yes, seriously), I left without any regrets.
As said before, this post doesn't give spoilers. You should go to the film with a fresh mind. But... prepare yourselves for the ending. The people surrounding me had mixed reactions, some clapping and some yelling in protest. Either way, you will be left on the edge of your seat, wanting more in the next film, and calculating the days till its release.
Follow Joseph Parker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/josephpkr