Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. A Review


Smaug Alert...

When last I visited the world of J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I commented that for all the madness and mayhem, something got lost.  What got lost was Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit's main character.  The Desolation of Smaug is the second part of a trilogy based on a book that is 305 pages long (at least my copy is that length). 

By comparison, I found a copy of Gone With the Wind that is 1,037 pages long, a copy of Ben-Hur that is 564 pages, a copy of 12 Years a Slave that is 198 pages, and a copy of All Quiet on the Western Front that is 295 pages long.  Each film version of the mentioned books (all Best Picture winners) managed to tell their stories within one movie.  Granted some were long movies (including Overture, Intermission, and Exit Music), but they all managed this feat because the filmmakers made the decision to cut the text.  Peter Jackson, the Lord of The Lord of the Rings franchise, along with his minions, decided to go the opposite route and ADD material from other Tolkien writings to made a trilogy out of a slim novel, in order to tie this story to the massive The Lord of the Rings trilogy that came a decade prior.

If one can find any justification (apart from greed) that makes making a trilogy out of a book whose story could be told in two hours (or less) on film, I have yet to hear it but would be eager to.

I thought DOS was better than AUJ, but again, there is simply so much thrown at it one might just as well cut the rather unimportant Bilbo character and focus on more important things (like an elf/dwarf love triangle).

We go back to the journey Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), hobbit and burglar to a group of dwarves, as they continue onwards to the Lonely Mountain, where Bilbo is expected to steal something from Smaug the dragon (voiced by Freeman's Sherlock costar, Benedict Cumberbatch).  Somewhere in all that, we have to have a series of escapes for our dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), their fearless leader.  Along the way they encounter the skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), they travel through the Elf forest of Mirkwood, where they survive spiders and escape from Elven King Thranduil (Lee Pace), his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the elveness Tauriel (a new character not found in the novel, played by Evengeline Lilly).  Tauriel and Kili are drawn to each other, much to the silent irritation of Legolas.

After their escape and despite still being pursued by the Orcs, the dwarves convince/bribe Bard the Boatsman (Luke Evans) to smuggle them into Lake-town, at the foot of the Lonely Mountain.  The greedy Master of Lake-town (uber-snob Stephen Fry) and his minion Alfrid (Ryan Gage), when they discover the dwarves, welcome them as a way to get the treasure Smaug is holding hostage.  The dwarves go to the Lonely Mountain where once in a duel of wits occurs between Bilbo and Smaug, with in the end Smaug bursting from the mountain to attack Lake-town. 

Bilbo says, "What have we done?" and film ends.

The most curious thing happened at the precise moment The Desolation of Smaug went black.  That very moment, at the precise moment the screen went black, I just dropped off.  It was for a few seconds, but I had to rewind it to see if somehow I'd missed anything.   What I missed was the whimsy and joy of Tolkien's slim novel, instead replaced by this massive epic that drowns out what we had before. 

Also missing (again) was Bilbo.  Throughout the plot summary notice that the novel's main character was almost written out of the story altogether.  That isn't to say Bilbo wasn't in the movie or that he wasn't important, but the screenplay by director Jackson, previously-assigned director Guillermo Del Toro, and LOTR veterans Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens reduced his role to where he was present only when necessary (facilitating the escape from Mirkwood or having a word duel with Smaug).  Apart from that he disappears for long stretches of DOS, where we are treated to really unimportant tales.

Do we really need this dwarf/elf love triangle?  Are Ian McKellen's Gandalf or Sylvester McCoy's Radagast necessary?   The former takes up such a large part of the story and the latter so little one wonders why they were there.   Adding more confusion/frustration is that The Hobbit is being used to tie in to the larger LOTR narrative when even Tolkien didn't have that idea per se.  Tolkien, if memory serves correct, didn't include any suggestion of Sauron's presence in The Hobbit, nor of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett in a 'blink-and-you'll-miss-it' cameo).  Unless Beorn plays a larger role in There and Back Again or Battle of the Five Armies or Peter Jackson Wants More of Your Money or whatever new title the third film goes by, his whole scene could have been cut without affecting the story. 

Do we really need the Halfling in this?
Isn't this OUR story?
Same for the Mirkwood spiders.  Same for the love triangle. Same for the internal Lake-town politics. Same for Legolas being shoehorned into this for no reason other than to give the one-note Bloom a job and LOTR fans a tie-in to a story he has no business being part of.

How can one justify spending an hour and a half of this second part BEFORE the dwarves even get to Erebor, their lost kingdom?

Perhaps the biggest failure of Desolation of Smaug for me is that it takes things so, so, DEADLY serious.  There is simply no joy in The Hobbit.  I suppose this comes from the fact that The Lord of the Rings was this epic and very serious trilogy, but even The Fellowship of the Ring had lightness in its scenes in the Shire (and Merry and Pippin as somewhat comic relief in the other films).  None of that for both An Unexpected Journey and Desolation of Smaug: EVERYONE has to play things as if this were SO IMPORTANT, so DEATHLY DULL.

Because everyone treats DOS with the solemnity of a state funeral, the performances pretty much are the same: dry, serious, and pretty lifeless.  Why are elves so self-important?  Why are dwarves so grouchy?  Why are humans so serious?  Why are wizards so opaque?  Why do we get nothing but a series of foreshadowings?

Sadly, the smallest parts, the hobbit and the dragon (now THERE'S a title) are the best parts.  Freeman still excels as Bilbo, his befuddlement and sense of awe still worth attention.  Cumberbatch's Smaug is slitheringly evil (though his voice, mercifully, is not so exaggerated in drawing out the wickedness in his baritone).

I would add that the self-importance of DOS extends to the visuals: almost all universally dark, full of blacks and greys with little light.  Even in the Elven Kingdom of Mirkwood, there is a heaviness that hangs over it.

For me, The Desolation of Smaug is better than An Unexpected Journey, but all the baggage from the first film still remains: a highly problematic sense of self-seriousness, an unmanageable narrative that sprawls with little to no sense, and a diminution of the main character in exchange for something larger, sacrificing the charm of the original. 


If you have a microscope,
you might find Bilbo.


  1. We have to disagree again about Smaug. I am curious about your general opinion of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Are they A or A+ movies for you? They are in my personal Top 10 Movies.


  2. I loved the LOTR films. Reviews a bit far off, but maybe w/school ending, I can tackle them.


Views are always welcome, but I would ask that no vulgarity be used. Any posts that contain foul language or are bigoted in any way will not be posted.
Thank you.