Monday, April 21, 2014

The Hobbit Desolation of Smaug: Review

I originally wrote this after the film debuted in theaters. I had a lot of strong feelings about it, both good and bad, and was compelled to write them down. I recently bought the DVD of the movie, because I'm a sucker and I can't help myself. Now on with the review.

Elves. Fuck yeah.

Let me start off by saying that I am glad, so glad, that there are people out there such as Peter Jackson and the folks at the Weta Workshop just to name a few who have put so much time and energy and creativity into making films out of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I have loved these stories for most of my life, and to see them given the attention they deserve on the big screen is a wonder. I don’t know that anyone else could have done as well to bring these stories to life as they did.

That said, despite how much I love The Hobbit, and want to love these movies, There are a lot of things wrong with this one. There are also a lot of things that I love, but let’s start with what I didn’t. I'm going to be echoing phrases like "in the book it was like this," or "the book didn't have that." I know that this is a different medium and that certain license must be taken. With that said, this is one of my favorite books ever, and I can't help but compare them. So take that with a grain of salt.

What I didn’t like:

Yes, Gandalf. Gandalf is Gandalf. He’s a great character, and well played by Sir Ian. But in the book, he’s no more really than an advisor to the Dwarves. He helps them out of a few scrapes and then takes off for business elsewhere and is gone for a good portion of the story. This is supposed to be a story about Bilbo, you know... THE HOBBIT. He’s our main protagonist. Whatever wizarding Gandalf is doing in parts unknown is not really our concern, but boy is he wizarding his butt off in this film. In all the LotR trilogy films we didn’t see him wizarding this hard. 

Wizard harder, nerd.

He even has a showdown with Sauron himself, which he loses, and since I know what happens after the Hobbit, is not suspenseful at all. I kept waiting for Radagast the smelly to come running back against Gandalf’s orders because that guy is a loose cannon, isn’t he? But no, because that would have been interesting, and therefore has no place in this filler material. I suppose all of this Dol Guldur stuff was added to tie in to the larger Lord of the Rings narrative, but it doesn’t need to. It could all be summed up by Gandalf at the end when he reappears, as it was in the book. That would work just as well. I think it’s even more interesting and suspenseful to have Gandalf just be gone on some nondescript wizardy thing, and not quite know where or when he’ll pop up next.

It’s great that they included Beorn. He’s an interesting character and I like him in the book, but he doesn’t really do anything here except harbor the party for a night and push them out the next day in a kind of dickish way. This all could have been cut the same way Tom Bombadil was cut from the Fellowship of the Ring film. I mean, if they were going to include him, they could have at least had him do something interesting. They spend enough time adding stuff that wasn’t in the book, why abbreviate Beorn so much?

Orcs, orcs, everywhere
I understand the addition of Azog, the pale orc. It is good to have a face for your antagonist, especially if it’s all scarred and mean looking. They did this pretty effectively in the LotR trilogy, having certain orcs stand out to serve as mini-antagonists, like that one guy with elephantitis of the face, but I am getting a little tired of the involvement of orcs in this story, one that isn’t even really about them. 

I am not an animal!

They chase the dwarves in their barrels, they raid Laketown, they are all over the Dol Guldur scenes, and all they really accomplish is giving Legolas increasingly interesting ways of killing them. There was almost no orc involvement in the source material save the goblins in Goblin Town, and the army that rises at the climax. Too much. Just too much senseless orc death for a story about a Hobbit and a dragon.

Elf class division
Did we really need a love triangle in this movie? Now, being a Tolkien nerd, I understand the different subdivisions of elves. I understand that Thranduil is of a different sort than the Sylvan elves who have been in Mirkwood (or Greenwood the Great) since forever, basically, but Thranduil and Tauriel’s addressing of it in regards to her being a suitable mate for Legolas left a bad taste in my mouth. Elf racism doesn’t fit in the Hobbit. Leave that for when they make three even more bloated movies about the Silmarils (heaven forbid). They had to manufacture tension somehow, I guess, but I disagree with every part of this. Which brings us to...

Interracial Dating
Why are Kili, the hot dwarf and Tauriel the elf making eyes at each other? Again, I ask, did we really need a love triangle in this movie? Did we really need to make up a reason for some elves to come to Laketown and fight orcs that shouldn’t have been there in the first place? I don’t like that there are hot beardless dwarves, and I don’t like an elf making goo-goo eyes at one of them.


Spiders and Barrel Fighting
In the book, the dwarves are pretty much at Bilbo’s mercy. He saves their asses again and again using his wits and the ring. He single-handedly takes down the spiders while the dwarves can barely move from the venom, and when they are captured by the elves, he loads them into barrels (sealed barrels) and floats them down the river while they hide inside and try not to drown. In this film, they are saved from spiders not just by Bilbo, but by the elves, and only after kicking some spider butts themselves. Then with the barrels, they are only chest-deep in the things and hacking away at orcs the whole time, not to mention some very improbable barrel physics and more help from the elves. This pretty much robs Bilbo of his heroism from the book. He is forced to take on the role of hero, however reluctantly, and proves his worthiness in much more profound ways, not by hacking everything to bits or making holes in them with arrows, but by being brave and resourceful and clever. This makes Thorin’s turn on him that much more powerful later in the story, and Thorin’s ultimate acceptance that much more heartwrenching. If you are going to make changes, at least have them make sense. I expect this sort of thing from Michael Bay, but not from Peter Jackson.

Adding and Editing
As you might have guessed by now, I tend to have a problem with things being different than the book. That is true to some extent. I don’t necessarily have a problem with any and every divergence from the source material. I understand that this is an adaptation, and certain poetic license is going to be taken. I understand that Tolkien is not the greatest storyteller, and he tends to get bogged down in the details, though in this case, the Hobbit is pretty tight for the most part. I understand that certain things have to be cut or tweaked for the sake of the medium. Again, I have no problem with any of these changes if they make sense. The problem I have is with the addition of things that don’t add to the story, that take away from the point of the original, and that make the thing frustrating to watch. I’m specifically addressing the intercutting of Gandalf’s side quest with that of the dwarves. Every time I feel like I’m settling in with the dwarves we have to cut away to Gandalf. It’s awkward and jarring and it takes me out of the story. It’s also unnecessary. I want to see the film recut without Gandalf’s stuff. Someone get on that.

Ring Anxiety
Bilbo seems to understand that the Ring is corrupting him and is reluctant to use it. This is as unnecessary as the Dol Guldur subplot. The Ring isn’t central to the story. There is no reason Bilbo shouldn’t be using it whenever it suits him. This completely invalidates Bilbo’s casual use of the ring at his birthday and his general lack of concern for it later in life. If anything, he should be loving using it because that’s how the ring works. It practically begs to be put on. This also messes up Bilbo and Smaug’s encounter because Smaug could see him the whole time and would most likely have killed him on sight. Which finally brings us to...

Smaug and Dwarves
Bilbo goes in the door, chats with Smaug, pisses him off, and retreats just in time to not get burned to a crisp. That’s all we needed. In an already bloated film, did we really need another highly improbable action setpiece inside Erebor? Forges, waterwheels, molten gold surfing, gold coated dragons, it’s all so over the top that there is no tension whatsoever. This whole sequence is unnecessary.

Now, while there are a lot of problems in this film, these being the major ones (I could go on and on and nitpick every detail, but there aren’t enough hours in the day) there are some things that I liked. I did still enjoy this movie for the most part, and here’s why.

What I did like:

Bilbo (Martin Freeman)
Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is wonderful. In fact everything Martin Freeman does is wonderful. Bilbo is delivered so perfectly and with such nuance. I don’t have enough good things to say about this Bilbo. It is spot on. This only makes the cheapening of his great deeds as mentioned above that much more egregious. Every moment Bilbo is on screen is magic. MOAR BILBO PLS.

Mirkwood is fantastic. It reminded me a little of one of my favorite films, Labyrinth. It is creepy, claustrophobic, and disorienting. It is all the things a nasty, dangerous, haunted forest should be. I missed the bit from the novel with the river, where Bombur falls in and forgets everything. Again, with all that is added to this film that is not from the source material, I don’t understand why they had to abbreviate the Mirkwood experience. They could have conceivably made the whole second film about Mirkwood and the elves and Laketown, but this thing is already stretched too big as it is. Like butter scraped over too much bread, as Bilbo might say.

I love elves. They are one of the things I love most about Tolkien. From the Silmarillion on down to the Return of the King, I am fascinated by them. The Dwarves’ entering Elvenhome was one of the things I was most excited to see, and I was not disappointed. The Mirkwood elves aren’t creepy and melancholic like the Lorien elves, they like to get drunk and party down. I think that Elvenhome was well done, and well designed, and it was great to see. Likewise, Thranduil is well written and well acted, save the bit of elvish class division mentioned above. Having lived for so long has made him a little weird, as one could imagine. He is wise and basically good, but has a cold callousness to him that comes from his long life in seclusion. I even liked the allusion to his previous scrapes with dragons, and thought that was a worthy addition, especially since they somehow resisted the urge to flashback to it. I loved Thranduil, and could have seen more of him, but what we got was plenty.

We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.

Evangeline Lilly
I’m of two minds on Tauriel. On the one hand, she is a character that did not appear in the book, and as such, everything she participates in is a departure from Tolkien. She features heavily in some of the weakest parts of the film, i.e. the barrel fight, the Laketown skirmish, and Kili’s poisoning and confession of love. That they felt we needed this character at all is frustrating, and the love triangle between Legolas, Kili, and Tauriel is ludicrous. That being said, I could watch Evangeline Lilly shoot orcs in the face for two hours and it would make for a pretty good movie in itself. 

Pew pew pew!

She embodies a Sylvan elf so well, I can almost excuse the love triangle business. Almost. I wish she had been used more effectively, and I hate the feeling in my gut that she will most likely die in the third movie, probably sacrificing herself for Kili. *cry* *Dwarf tears* It’s too bad she didn’t appear in the LotR trilogy, because she fits so well into elf ears.

I like what they did with Bard. Not much is made of him in the source material. He’s basically just a guard who happens to be a pretty good shot with a bow. I actually like the liberties they took with this character, and with Laketown in general, up until the orcs show up. Bard is the everyman that we can kind of identify with here. I’m interested to see how things shake out for him in the third film.

Here we go.
Smaug is, by a fairly wide margin, my very favorite character in all of Tolkien. Even though he only appears for a single conversation with Bilbo before flying into a rage and getting himself killed, he is the biggest presence in the Hobbit, and I don’t mean his physical size. His shadow looms over the whole story up until we meet him in the flesh. Then when we do meet him, he is so delightfully arrogant, selfish, and just plain evil. I love Smaug. He is the perfect Dragon. In the film he is very well realized. The design, the animation, the execution is all well done. Cumberbatch does a great job with the voice, and I guess with the expressions too? Did they motion capture those?  

Blunderbuss Cabbagepatch relaxing on the set.

Anyway, I love Smaug. The whole battle sequence was a bit overdone I think, but holy crap, what an awesome dragon. Again, make a whole movie about Smaug and I would watch the shit out of it. I would take exception to Smaug’s acknowledgement of the ring, but he’s just so awesome I’m willing to let it go.

So summing up, I was kind of disappointed by this one. It was overlong and had too much forced action that didn’t have any suspense to it at all. The abrupt ending was a little jarring, as was a lot of the editing, and it really took me out of Middle Earth, which is where I want to be with these films. I’m afraid that the third one will be anticlimactic. There is so little story left, that it’s going to be all action in the last film, and the action, unfortunately, is where these films seem to suffer. I can see the writing on the wall, Smaug besieges Laketown, somehow narrowly missing everyone we care about in improbable ways, then the battle of five armies, which I’m sure will take up the last 2/3rds of the film, Tauriel will likely die for Kili’s sake, furthering the enmity of the dwarves in Legolas’s eyes, which is not needed at all. Azog and Thorin will showdown and kill each other. I don’t even want to speculate about the battle at Dol Guldur, because it shouldn’t even be here. Probably Galadriel and her people will show up, and maybe even Elrond, but I want no part of it.

I really tried to love it, but it fell somewhat short for me. There is a lot here to love, especially for the uninitiated, but ultimately it feels like they are trying too hard.


  1. Great post! I'm starting to think that my main problem with both Hobbit movies is the flat tone. There's nothing to distinguish a lighter moment from a darker one, or something throw-away from something of profound import, because it's all delivered with the same degree of (weirdly half-hearted) visual bombast. Here's Bilbo, here's Beorn, here's barrel-riding and Bard and Bolg. Beat, beat, beat. No depth, no variation, no sense of purpose or structure beyond the placing of events in a neat sequence. The uncut versions of the whole trilogy may make for a better experience -- as they did for LOTR -- but as a middle act, this was entirely flat.

    Evangeline Lilly, though, is a delight!

  2. Thanks for the look-see and the comment. And for the shout out on the show. I was walking past the DVDs in the store the other day and saw the EXTENDED VERSION of Desolation of Smaug. Now, I own the extended cuts of the three Lord of the Rings films, and I love them. Some of the juicy bits of Tolkienny minutia are put back in, and that series is so huge and so much of it is glossed over that what they put back in it is fun and in most cases worthy of the almost 4 hours of runtime. What do you think they put back in this film? What could possibly have been on the cutting room floor that they looked at it and said, oh, this absolutely has to go in the extended cut... I can't even imagine.