In some ways, yes; in some ways, no. It’s definitely got a quicker pace, with lots fewer stretches that seem like showcases for the beauty of New Zealand. However, it diverges from the book quite a bit, and not just in the storyline and characters: the movie spends a great deal of time on scenes that don’t involve Bilbo at all. While I had no particular objection to the scenes of Gandalf investigating the Necromancer’s doings at Dol Guldur, especially since in general (in any movie) any bit with Ian McKellen is better than a bit without him, but its place in the movie seemed more about setting things up for the Lord of the Rings storyline than having anything to do with the journey of Bilbo and the dwarves. I did enjoy the enhancements to the Esgaroth (Lake-town) part, with Bard being made into a sort of Han Solo-esque character who’s also a widower with kids, and Stephen Fry makes a terrific Master.
2. Will my kids like it?
I would definitely think twice about taking a kid younger than 9 or 10 to see this film: there are lots of fairly graphic orc decapitations, and the scene with the giant spiders is perhaps a little too realistic. Apart from that, most kids are bound to enjoy the film. It’s got lots of fun action scenes, and a great deal of humor — in fact, the fighting surrounding the dwarves and Bilbo floating down the river is frankly so ridiculously improbable that it’s in a way funny on two levels.
3. Is it worth paying more for 3D? For IMAX? For the faster frame rate?
I’ve only seen it in IMAX 3D, with the faster frame rate, so I can’t speak directly to how it looks otherwise. But I can say it is absolutely gorgeous that way, so realistic-looking you feel like you’re almost in the movie yourself. The 3D really adds a lot of depth to the film that immerses you in it in a way 2D never could, and is used to fun effect here and there — such as when a decapitated head appears to fly out of the screen toward you. I think arachnophobes who attend a screening in 3D, and particularly in IMAX, may want to take a bathroom break for the spider scene, though, because its hyper-realism was even a bit unsettling for me, and I usually don’t have a problem with spiders. (My wife, who is somewhat arachnophobic, and who attended the film with me, was visibly repulsed and upset by the scene.)
4. When’s the best time for a bathroom break?
As mentioned above, the spider scene is a great time for a bathroom break for anyone who might be taken aback by extremely realistic giant spiders, particularly small children for whom they might spawn nightmares. When you see Bilbo climb the tree in Mirkwood to find the sun, make for the door (the big spider webs he sees beforehand are kind of a sign of what’s coming).
5. How long is this one? Are they really going to be able to get three long films out of that fairly small book?
The Desolation of Smaug is 161 minutes long, 21 minutes shorter than An Unexpected Journey, which I think we can all agree is a good thing. Peter Jackson is taking enough material from other Tolkien writing, and augmenting with his own ideas, that I’ve no doubt he’ll be able to squeeze another three hours, give or take, from the rest of the book. This one ends just as Smaug is about to pay Esgaroth a visit, so there’s still the whole Battle of the Five Armies to come, and Bilbo has to make it back to the Shire, so there’s definitely plenty of material left.
Amazing. Truly amazing: easily the most believable dragon I’ve ever seen on screen, to the point where I was actually able to forget I was watching a special effect at times. Benedict Cumberbatch must have had a blast doing the motion capture for the dragon, and his voice turned out much like I’ve always heard it in my head, which was great.
7. What about the addition of Tauriel, the female elf? And how does the insertion of Legolas work?
It’s certainly nice to have an actual female character in The Hobbit, since the insertion of Galadriel in the first part really didn’t do much. The character is fairly well-written and well-acted (by Evangeline Lilly, best known as Kate from Lost), but I could really have done without the manufactured love triangle between her, Legolas, and Kili — I’m sorry, I know that the Kili in the movies has smoldering good looks, but he’s not supposed to, and any fan of Tolkien knows that the idea of an elf falling in love with a dwarf so quickly just doesn’t mesh with his writings. Having Legolas in the movie works pretty well — he is supposed to be Thranduil’s son, after all, and elves have such long lives it makes perfect sense that he’d be there 60 years before Fellowship of the Ring takes place. The special effects used to make Orlando Bloom look even younger than he did 13 years ago work remarkably well — I’d kind of like to hire them to do the same for me.
8. How’s the portrayal of Beorn?
The set for Beorn’s house is just amazing, with all sorts of details, and expertly crafted to make things look huge compared to the dwarves and Bilbo. However, the scene with Gandalf introducing the dwarves a couple at at time, which is pretty funny in the book, is strangely missing from the movie, and I wasn’t wild about the way they made Beorn look in humanoid form. I also thought it strange that, unlike in the book, Gandalf tells the dwarves and Bilbo right away that Beorn is a shape-changer who is sometimes a bear, rather than keeping that (a bit of) a mystery for a while.
9. Do I need to sit through the credits for a bonus scene at the end?
No. You’ll probably want to sit through the first part of the credits to hear the song “I See Fire.” But after that, it’s just credits.