Review: The Desolation of Smaug


You know, I expected this post to be a long spew of me shouting/raving about how insanely cool the Desolation of Smaug was––instead . . . I've got decidedly mixed feelings about the latest installment of the Hobbit trilogy. It's not that I didn't like the movie. Far from it. Like all of Peter Jackson's Middle-earth movies so far, Desolation definitely ranks as one of my favorite movies of all time. What I can't decide, is how it stacks up against it's predecessor, An Unexpected Journey, and how well it did at retelling Tolkien's story. Jump past the break, and I'll do my best to explain.

Oh, and I'm too tired to even care about watching what I'm saying, so BEWARE SPOILERS!

Crappy photo? Yes. But it's proof that I was there.
More than any of the previous LOTR or Hobbit movies, Desolation deviates from the book. A few things are left out that I wish had been included: shooting at the stag in Mirkwood forest and Bombur falling in the enchanted stream; but where Desolation really plunges away from the book's stomping grounds are the numerous additions that Mr. Jackson and Co. have worked into the film. Plenty of sources online had warned that the movie featured a lot of changes, so I tried to go in mentally prepared for them. And––to my pleasant surprise––I actually really liked nearly all of the additions and story changes. Yeah, that's right. Only one or two of them even came close bugging me, and the changes I had been worried about (Tauriel, Legolas, etc.), actually turned out really well IMO.

So, instead of recounting the whole movie to you, I think I'll just make a list of the things I liked about the movie, then a list of things I didn't like so much. Here goes:

Things I liked about The Desolation of Smaug:
  1. The Music. As usual, the music was fantastic. Loved every minute of it, especially the new Lake-town theme––bombastic and baroque, the theme meshed perfectly with the look and feel of the town (which I'll discuss later).
  2. The Bree Scene. The movie starts out 12 months prior to the events of An Unexpected Journey, and takes place at the Prancing Pony in Bree. I thought this scene was a great intro to the movie, and––more importantly––it fulfilled one of my long-held wishes: a reimagining of the Bree scene from Fellowship of the Ring, which was always pretty dissatisfying to me. In the book, Bree is a fascinating town because its the only place in Middle-earth where multiple races (Hobbits and Men, specifically) coexist peacefully in close proximity. But in Fellowship the movie, Bree is portrayed as a creepy place populated only by humans; this completely bummed me out because I had always loved the idea of the Prancing Pony being filled with dwarves and hobbits and men swapping stories and enjoying a pint together. Well, Desolation of Smaug has rewarded me by recreating that idyllic image.
  3. Bilbo. As usual, Martin Freeman stole the show. He did a fantastic job. Bravo, little hobbit. Bravo.
  4. Beorn. The shape-changing guardian of the wilds totally blew me away. I had been seriously under-whelmed by the few images we'd seen of him prior to the movie, so I went into the show with low expectations. Luckily, Beorn was far cooler than I had expected. My favorite thing about him was how huge the guy is. A literal giant, even compared to normal-sized folks like Gandalf. His bear form was intimidating and just monstrous enough to not look like a regular bear. My only complaint with Beorn? His screen time was WAY too short. There are so many fun details in the book from the dwarves' encounter with Beorn that were dropped: Beorn's animal servants and the meeting of bears that Bilbo observes at night, just to name two. And in my opinion, the book's slower (and very comical) introduction of the dwarves in pairs to Beron would have been the perfect opportunity to slow the pace of the movie down a notch and give the audience a chance to reacquaint themselves with Thorin's company. I mean, there are thirteen dwarves, for crying out loud, and I'm sure more casual movie goers would have appreciated a remedial lesson in the differences between Bifor, Bofur and Bombur. Opportunity lost, sadly.
  5. The visual design of Mirkwood and the Spiders. The forest looked amazing . . . a perfect visualization of Tolkien's descriptions, and the spiders were awesomely terrifying. I loved how the spiders were reminiscent of Shelob without being miniatures versions of the great spider. Oh, and the spiders talking? Awesome! Sadly, those are about the only good things I can say about the whole sequence of scenes beginning with Gandalf's departure and leading up to the company's capture by Legolas and the wood elves.
  6. Bilbo and the Ring. Ok, I lied. I actually really liked Bilbo's growing relationship with the ring. Well done. A departure from the book? Yes. But it does a fantastic job of better integrating the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings into a single narrative. Bilbo's horrified reaction to his own violent outburst is an amazing scene.
  7. Legolas. Didn't think I'd like the guy, but I did. It was fun to see him again, and Peter Jackson managed to deftly insert him into the storyline in a way that was both believable and exciting. Plus, watching Legolas snipe orcs with his bow and arrows while balanced on the heads of various dwarves while flowing down a rushing river was just fun.
  8. Tauriel. I have to admit, I was surprised by how much Tauriel didn't bug me. She was actually pretty cool, and her fight scenes were amazing. Of course, there was on glaring thing I didn't like about her, and you could probably guess what it was (see below if you can't guess).
  9. The Halls of the Elven King. Wow. Awesome. Really, really awesome. You kind of just have to see it to believe it.
  10. Thranduil. Cool, but weird.
  11. Fight down the River. This whole scene was great. I loved every second of it. Oh, except whenever the camera focused on Kili. Didn't like that. My favorite part of this scene? Bombur and the whirling-axe-dervish of death. Had me laughing out loud. Good stuff.
  12. Bard. This guy was the best part of the movie, hands down. "Better than Smaug?" you ask. Yes. Well, maybe. I can't decide. My only complaint about Bard is that he looks a lot like Will Turner from Pirates of the Carribean. But other than that he's awesome. I thought that the addition of his children to the story––while unexpected––actually played out very well and made the character a lot more sympathetic.
  13. Lake-town. Wahoo! This is my new favorite location in Middle-earth. I loved the design of the place and the people. I can't say much more than that, except maybe that I want to see more of it. Too bad it's not going to be around much longer.
  14. Legolas and Tauriel vs. Bolg and his posse. Even though I hated the whole Kili Got Shot sub-plot, I actually really enjoyed watching Tauriel and Legolas kill a ton of orcs in and around Lake-town. Also, the final showdown between Legolas and Bolg was pretty sweet too. And unless I'm crazy, there was a critical teaser during the fight. Legolas rams Orcrist right through Bolg's gut, and it doesn't even phase the dude, he just keeps on fighting. There have been numerous rumors swirling about that Azog may have actually been brought back to life by the Necromancer, and I think Bolg may have just confirmed it. Has Sauron brought both orcs back to life, or given them some kind of un-death? We'll just have to wait and see, I guess.
  15. Erebor. It was a treat to see more of the dwarf city, interior and exterior. For all my complaints below (see #8), the scene where the company climbs up the gigantic statue of Thror was awe-inspiring. Inside the mountain, I loved the transition from rough-hewn tunnels just beyond the secret door, to progressively more refined halls and chambers, until Bilbo reaches the massive treasure room in the heart of the mountain. I also really enjoyed getting to see the foundries and the "Hall of Kings" or whatever it was.
  16. Smaug. What more can I say than has already been said? Smaug was amazing, and Cumberbatch did a fantastic job of portraying him.
  17. Most of the Battle inside Erebor. Much to my continued surprise, I actually kind of enjoyed watching the dwarves and Bilbo play cat and mouse with Smaug. It was funny at times and always exciting, and it gave Thorin one last chance to be the hero before things start to really go downhill (although, I would argue that he didn't really need to be a "hero", because Tolkien never intended him to be; but . . . whatever).
Things I disliked about The Desolation of Smaug:
  1. The Pacing. Let me make something very clear: the Hobbit never was, and never will be a thriller. It's just not. It's the story of a journey and the personal growth of Bilbo Baggins. Now sure, a lot of cool battles and things ensue during the journey, but fundamentally, the Hobbit is the tale of journey. Because of this, the movie DOES NOT NEED TO MAINTAIN THE TEMPO OF A THRILLER! It just shouldn't be that fast. You lose too much of what is important about the story. I know that a lot of critics and moviegoers panned An Unexpected Journey because it was too slow; but I'd be willing to wager that nearly all of those people were movie watchers first, and Tolkien fans second (if at all). Personally, I felt that the tempo of An Unexpected Journey was perfect––especially (and I cannot stress this especially enough) if you're taking a single book and turning it into a three movie trilogy. The Desolation of Smaug, on the other hand, felt rushed from beginning to end. I mean really rushed. Maybe Mr. Jackson was trying to please the critics who'd wished for a faster AUJ, but if that was his goal, I think he definitely overcorrected. You lose all sense of passing time while watching the film because everything happens so fast . . . you actually start to forget you're watching a journey at all. In the book, the trek through Mirkwood takes DAYS, and yet in the movie you don't see a single night pass. In the book, the dwarves are literally starving by the time they're captured by the Wood elves, but in the movie they're still fed and fit enough to kill more spiders than Bilbo does (more on that later). In the book, Thorin and Co. are held prisoner by Thranduil for weeks . . . Bilbo has to resort to thievery to keep himself fed while he wanders the halls. Those long days trapped in dark cells would have been the perfect opportunity to see Thorin descending into depression and bitter rage, and a chance to show Bilbo growing more confident and self-reliant as he learns to provide and fend for himself. Instead, in the movie it seems like Bilbo has the dwarves out of their cells and into the barrels mere moments after Thranduil imprisons them. Finally, by rushing the pacing, the movie fails to convey the immense size of Middle-earth. In the book, readers come to feel just how big Mirkwood is because the heroes can't seem to get out of it. In the movie, Mirkwood seems like just another wooded park. And what really drives me crazy about this is that Peter Jackson is taking THREE FREAKING MOVIES to tell the story of the Hobbit. THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO REASON TO RUSH THINGS!!!! Gaaaaah! Ok . . . sorry. Moving on.
  2. The battle with the Spiders. It can be argued that Bilbo's battle with the spiders is one of the most pivotal moments in the book. Its right at that moment when Bilbo finally begins to realize that he is capable of great things. Wearing the ring, he slays numerous spiders and manages to lead the rest of them away from the weary, befuddled dwarves who can barely stand. But in the movie, Bilbo only wears the ring for a little bit, and then––for no good reason––he takes it off in order to startle a spider. Now, I'm no warrior, but I find it really hard to imagine a situation when I'd take off the magic ring that is making me basically invincible. Why on earth would I do that? And why did Bilbo do that? It just doesn't make any sense. What's worse, once Bilbo takes off the ring, his part in the fight is essentially over––the dwarves leap out of their webs and immediately begin pummeling the spiders. And here is where we run across one of the biggest logical failing in the film. In the book, the dwarves have been wandering so long in the forest that they're already practically dead by the time the spiders attack them. It makes sense then, that the spiders are able to overpower and capture them. It also makes sense that once Bilbo rescues the starving, envenomed dwarves, they're basically useless in the fight. But in the movie, there are all kinds of problems. The dwarves haven't been in Mirkwood long enough to be starving (at least, it really doesn't seem like it), and they still have their weapons, so why are the spiders able to overpower them in the first place? Maybe it's because they've been weakened by the disorienting powers of the forest, which the movie dwells on (for too long); but if that's the case, why are the dwarves so agile and deadly once Bilbo cuts them out of the webs? They're still in Mirkwood, so they should still be in a stupor. IT DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE! If Peter Jackson had taken more time to show just how long they'd been wandering, and if Bilbo had done most of the dirty work like he's supposed to, it all would have been fine. Instead, this scene––despite how visually cool it was––left me dissatisfied and scratching my head in confusion.
  3. Tauriel and Kili. Why Peter? WHY?????!!!! Why did you feel the need to do this? What did it add to the story, except needless complication? What does it teach us about tolerance and diversity that Gimli's relations with Legolas and Galadriel didn't already teach us? AND WHY THE HECK DOESN'T KILI LOOK LIKE A DWARF?! He's got fat fingers and he's short . . . other than that he's pretty much a bearded elf! What have you done to my beloved story? *Sob*
  4. Thranduil. Cool, but weird.
  5. Barrels out of Bonds. My biggest complaint about the actual escape from the elven halls was that it happened too fast. You don't really get the chance to understand Bilbo's sudden stroke of genius.
  6. The Master of Lake-town. Meh. Just meh. Stephen Fry did a great job, and I liked the look of the character, but there were too many anachronistic references rolled into this character for my taste. Oh, and too much political commentary. When I want biased, thinly-veiled political commentary, I'll watch MSNBC, thank you very much.
  7. The Whole "Kili Is Really Sick" Thing. So, I know it sounds like I'm hating on Kili in this review . . . and that's because I am. I'm fairly confident that this entire sub-plot was a poorly concealed effort to make sure that when Smaug comes a-calling to Lake-town in Movie 3, characters that we care about will be there to be put in danger, making the attack even more fraught with danger and emotion. Only . . . the movie already did a good job of making us care about Bard and his family (all of whom I like better than Kili, even though I don't know any of the kids' names), so why would I need to care about more people?
  8. The Thrush Knocks Thrice. One of my favorite parts of the Hobbit is Thorin and Co.'s careful exploration of the exterior of the Lonely Mountain and their painstaking search for the secret door. Over the course of several days, the dwarves (and Bilbo), scour the mountain looking for the door, giving readers some idea of the true size of the mountain, and introducing cool locations like Ravenhill, an old watch-station on a spur of the mountain, where some of the company make camp. In the movie, we get none of this . . . again,  a chance to more fully explore Middle-earth in general (and the Lonely Mountain in particular) is sacrificed for speed and tension. The journey from Lake-town to Erebor seems to take less than a day, and the company quickly finds the location of the secret door. A little bit of suspense is built up when the sun sets and the dwarves give up (what happened to the "stubbornness of dwarves"?), but then Bilbo quickly discovers the secret to finding the door and we're racing along again. Missed opportunity . . .
  9. The Gold. This might be a stupid thing to complain about, but as a geologist, one detail of Erebor keeps jumping out at me: the sheer amount of gold piled high inside the mountain. Why do I have a problem with it? Because there is literally NOT THAT MUCH GOLD ON PLANET EARTH. At least, not by my rough calculation of volume. There's just too much. Sorry, dumb thing to complain about, I know, but there it is . . .
  10. The End of the Battle of Erebor. Why did they have to try and drown Smaug in gold? Why? It looked dumb. That's about the best thing I can say about it. Trying to crush the dragon with rocks would have been better, or something along those lines. The whole melting gold statue thing was just silly. In fact, I really believe that if this one thing had been left out of The Desolation of Smaug, I might have ended up liking it better than An Unexpected Journey; but it wasn't, and I don't. Oh well. Better luck with the next movie I guess.
Conclusion

To finish this (long) review up, just let me reiterate that––despite the ten points I detailed above that I really didn't like about the movie––I really enjoyed it overall. It was a lot of fun, and I think the good things about the film definitely outweigh the bad. Plus, there's always the Extended Edition to iron out some of the wrinkles I mentioned (hopefully). And to be honest, if the past four LOTR/Hobbit movies are any indication, I'll probably end up liking The Desolation of Smaug a little bit more each time I see it. To that end, I'm going to go see the movie again in a few days, and I'll let you all know afterwards if a second viewing seriously changes any of my opinions.

Good film. Go see. Have much fun.

Later . . .

11 comments:

  1. I was kind of hoping Thorin and Co. would continue their song story about the fall of Erebor as their journey continued, maybe at nightfall while lost in Mirkwood….

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    1. That would have been awesome. So, what did you think of the show?

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  2. It was fantastic. I agree with most everything you said above. But I do think the exploding gold statue was cool, if unnecessary. And didn't Bolg just grab Legolas' sword, not actually get stabbed? I thought he was stabbed at first but then I re-watched the movie and it just looks like he catches the sword between his arm and ribcage.

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    1. Rewatched it . . . a couple of times. And you're totally right. He just grabs it. Kind of bummer . . .

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  3. Well, if he grabbed the sword, that would make a lot more sense. I really enjoyed that fight . . . in fact, like you said, the movie was fantastic. I just like to be picky. :)

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    1. I agree. I actually liked the ending. The movie as a whole was an incredibly enjoyable experience. As a person who has read the appendices, I knew exactly what PJ had put in, and I just loved the fact that they tried to kill Smaug with molten gold even though we know it would never work because Smaug is a dragon and dragons can't get burnt.

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    2. Just went and saw the film again . . . and I have to admit the ending didn't bug me as badly.

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  4. (When I want biased, thinly-veiled political commentary, I'll watch MSNBC,) The same could be said for FOX news...You could have said cable new's and left it at that, But instead you showed your bias. As far as the rest of your comments of the film...I would have to agree.

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    1. When you're right, your right. Of course, when reading blogs, you generally expect to run into biased commentary. The same can't really be said for an adventure film like the Hobbit.

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  5. not to knock your review, because it really was great and I enjoyed reading, but the gold argument could be debunked if you consider they're in Middle Earth. Which is not a part of earth as we know. just a thought. enjoyed reading this, thanks!

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    1. Hey Colton. That would be true, except Middle-earth is supposed to be the same planet we're on right now . . . everything Tolkien wrote was a sort of "prehistory" of England, a mythology for Tolkien's own country. Of course, it's just a fictional place, so you're right . . . there could be more gold in Middle-earth. :)

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