Dec 19 2013

Unreal Movie Review – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Published by at 11:00 am under Movies,Reviews

hobbit

You may notice that the byline for this review is wrong. Being the big boss man means Paul gets to rock the reviews for the happening new things himself, but it also means he’s a busy, busy guy so he’s decided to pass this one off to me. It makes sense since I was less than kind to his take on the previous film. Being a lifelong Tolkien fanatic and Peter Jackson supporter and all that, it’s my job to lob grenades at reviewers who don’t have the same attachment to the source material. It’s a nerd thing. Well, this time the grenades are coming at me. Serves me right, I suppose. Aim well, readers.

I was a big fan of An Unexpected Journey. In spite of the unnecessary bloating =, additions, and bird dooky-covered hobo, it really felt like I was back in Middle Earth enjoying a different take on one of the most influential stories of my life. It just felt right. I didn’t care about any fancy high frame rates or 3D and I wasn’t judging what the next two films would be like as most reviewers were. The fact is, I watched that film for three hours starting at midnight and at the end I wanted three more hours.

I got two and a half more hours last Friday at midnight and the bottom line is that I left pissed. The song at the end sounded awesome, but I just wanted to leave so I couldn’t enjoy it.  Do you want me to say that The Desolation of Smaug made me feel desolate? Because I will if that’s what you want. I’ll go up and change the title of this article to “Smaug is desolate” or something right now. Okay, maybe not.

Really, it wasn’t all that bad. The film started off gloriously and I kept thinking to myself what a great director Peter Jackson is. The man has great visual style, timing, and his team always has a strong cohesive vision. But by the end of this one for the first time, I really felt the biggest and most common criticism of the man: the bloat; that need to make everything  SO FREAKIN’ EPIC and then making the next thing EVEN EPICER THAN THAT.

We start off with our company still on the run from Azog’s warg-riders and Bilbo still proving his worth. But fear not, there is precious little time for the title character in this middle chapter of The Hobbit trilogy. By the end, he’s practically a non-entity in his own story.

Beorn the skinchanger promised to be one of the highlights of the story and he was. I was expecting more than was given, but what was there was right in step with the book, right down to the dinner menu. Little details like these have impressed me in every film of the series. Say what you want about PJ’s excessiveness, but he gets the little details right on most of the time, and fans of the original works respect and appreciate that.

hobbit1

Muh honeycoooomb!

At this point, Gandalf leaves the company as he did in the book. What the films give us that the book did not is what the hell the wizard was up to. In both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the purpose of Gandalf’s absences are often kept mysterious. Tolkien knew and divulged this information in other sources, but I always assumed it was to force Frodo/Bilbo’s true strength and potential to surface. Well, in Jackson’s films, the blanks are thankfully filled in.

I say thankfully because people freaking out over not knowing what happened when Batman left the Joker alone at the party in The Dark Knight taught me nothing so much as people really want their widdle hands held at all times. I love that Tolkien often only told you what the protagonist knew and left the rest vague and mysterious because it put you in their shoes and let you experience the events from their perspective.

Interestingly, Gandalf uses a lot more magic in this film than in previous ones. Jackson is on record as saying he doesn’t like magic and has avoided as much of it as he could thusfar. I’m not sure why he changed his mind, but we do see some more of Gandalf’s magic this time out, and what lurks in the fortress of Dol Guldur is more than he expected to find.

After some arachnophobic nightmares in the forest of Mirkwood and some hijinks involving a theme-park barrel ride with bonus orc-slaying, the film encounters a problem. That problem is named Legolas. The character hails from Mirkwood, so putting him in the story briefly made all of the sense in the world, but even beyond that point he takes over the damn movie for no good reason.

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Though one could argue there’s always room for more pretty, pretty people.

A lot of people might say that there is no such thing as too much action in a movie. Hell, I might have said that at some point. Well, that isn’t true in this case. I’d estimate that some twenty minutes of the movie is spent on scenes of Legolas shooting arrows, decapitating foes, and surfing on their corpses. Yes, apparently he was quite the corpse surfer back in his pre-Fellowship days.

On top of making Orlando Bloom’s dreamy elf the star of the show, Jackson knew he needed something for the gentlemen in the audience as well. There’s only so many hairy dwarves and hobbits a man can take, after all. Enter Evangeline Lilly as the gorgeous auburn-haired elvish warrior, Tauriel. While I agree with adding a strong female character to such a male-dominated narrative, it’s kind of unfortunate that she’s used as fodder for a poorly conceived love triangle which is, in turn, used an excuse to drag Legolas along for more unnecessary action scenes that start to look like different levels in a beat-em-up video game after a while.

Throw in some unwanted Laketown politics and the pacing of the second half of the film becomes nightmarish. But there’s a dragon on the way, folks; we’ve just got to get to the dragon and everything will be awesome again. It’s really hard to screw up a fire-breathing dragon.

In The Hobbit, Tolkien portrayed Thorin as well-meaning at first, but obsessed Ahab-like with reclaiming his people’s lost fortune and heritage, seeing Bilbo as a means to that end and eventually succumbing to his own greed when the fellowship he already shared was a bigger prize to begin with. Smaug represented greed embodied; the capitalist who kills the economy by gathering all of the wealth for himself and then simply sitting on it rather than spending it to keep the economy flowing as capital is meant to. There has never been a more apt metaphor for what our country is currently going through.

While the latter image of the two speaks for itself and didn’t need to be highlighted, Jackson dropped the ball by having Thorin go from giving up in the quest at the freakin’ door one minute to going full creepy the next with precious little foreshadowing or development since the first film. Even Anakin Skywalker thought that was weak character work, and god knows there was plenty of screen time available for it.

hobbit3

Seriously, bro?

That brings us back to the title characters. The absolute highlight of this film was once again, Bilbo facing down a true menace alone. His confrontation with the dragon is amazing. The dialogue and shots in that sequence were intense and impressive. As Smaug, Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice captured the perfect amount of bored haughtiness and commanding arrogance that one would attribute to a massive invincible monster who has been sleeping for decades, having claiming for his own everything in that part of the world worth claiming.

That scene by itself was worth the price of admission. As expected, Smaug is the best thing about the movie. Mission accomplished, let’s get back to Laketown and wrap this storyline up with the epic climax this movie deserves. But wait! Why ruin the horrible pacing now by sticking to the book? Why not cram in one last action scene so epic and so long and so unnecessary that we have to leave this plotline for the last movie to tie up in spite of the fact that there is already an epic setpiece in the book that will take up half of that movie?

You know how I said it’s hard to screw up a fire-breathing dragon?  Well, it can be done. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing when there is no narrative reason for it. The chase through the Lonely Mountain was beyond ridiculous. It belongs in one of Michael Bay’s Transformers films or something. I’m not even joking when I say that my exact thoughts during this sequence were as follows: “PJ. What r u doing? PJ.  Stahp.”

All that time, all that money, all of the crazy complex machinery and molten gold and flames and stunts and silliness just to accomplish taking me completely out of the film and then they fade to black right when things get back on track when there was a much more obvious place for the film to end that could have been accomplished in the same amount of time and wouldn’t have made me wish I’d order popcorn so I could throw my bucket at the screen? Why?

hobbit4

Because reasons, Barrel-rider!

I didn’t hate The Desolation of Smaug, but I left angry regardless. I expected more. And when say more, I don’t mean more meandering plotlines that don’t relate to the core story, I don’t mean more lengthy action setpieces, and I don’t mean more half-assed romance. I wanted more character development, more thought given to the pacing, and more of the Peter Jackson that made the first four Tolkien films; the one who gave a crap about the original work and worried about what to leave out instead of what he could shoehorn in.

I will almost surely be getting the blu-ray at some point so the series has obviously not lost me as a fan, but I’m now worried about the final film whereas prior to the second half of The Desolation of Smaug there was only confidence. Sure, Jackson makes bloated films, but they never ceased entertaining me until now. I was never, ever bored during a PJ epic before. And to make me bored during an action sequence with a freakin’ dragon in it is a thing that has only been done once before in Dragon Wars. That is not a place you want to be.

For all my defending of An Unexpected Journey, the sequel seems to have vindicated the fears of that film’s critics that they were stretching the book’s narrative farther than it would go with a trilogy. Ironically, most of the critics seem to agree that this middle entry is better. Urge to kill: rising. Still, you’ve got to see it for yourself. It’s not as long a film as the first –although it felt longer to me- but if your complaint was not enough action or hot elvish girls, then maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did. And who knows, maybe I’ll feel differently about it this time next year when the entire epic will be made whole.





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15 responses so far

  • cypher20

    You are one strange dude :-)

    I definitely enjoyed this one more then the first, largely because the plot moved at a better pace and there was more interesting happenings going on. The barrel scene was definitely epic and Smaug was fantastic. I didn’t mind the Lonely Mountains scene only except that, you’re right, the scene was in there solely to take up real estate so they could have the actual Smaug fight take place in the 3rd movie. Which makes sense I guess insomuch as defeating Smaug has been our objective since movie 1 and taking him out in this movie would probably confuse a lot of the movie-going audience. Still, it was just padding, but fun padding.

    The love triangle with Tauriel is rather silly, especially as she seems to fall for the dwarf (Kili? was that his name?) for seemingly no reason. In a nearly three hour movie they couldn’t give me more then “she sees dwarf, loves dwarf, have a little talk while he’s in jail”? From that I’m supposed to believe she’s fallen head over heels for him? Not to mention the ridiculous amounts of animosity between dwarves and elves? *sigh*

    Although, the Elven King was fantastic (Thranduil? Thranduin? ugh, sorry, subtract 10 nerd point from my card). Totally loved him.

    • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

      I’m all for some dwarf-elf love to promote tolerance and all that, but it needs to be done right, like the Legolas/Gimli bromance. Hey, that dwarf in the jail is kind of tall for a dwarf (but still half my size) and he’s like a real person and stuff. I must leave my home and follow him to the ends of Middle Earth after one normal conversation! And goddamn that big gold dwarf at the end was stupid and pointless. I literally groaned and rolled my eyes.

    • Stephen Brookins

      The barrel scene was one another thrown in there for the sake of action and 3d effects.

      • cypher20

        True, but who cares? I am eagerly awaiting the day they release a Barrel Armor Battle Dwarf action figure. :-D

        • Stephen Brookins

          It took up valuable time that could have went to taking birds. Haha.

  • Lucas Tetrault

    I haven’t even seen it yet but I find myself agreeing with you Nick.

    I said at the beginning when I found out they were making it into a 3 part series that it should only be 2. Your review just makes me think I was right.

    Good review regardless.

  • Mike

    I loved the movie and thought Smaug was amazing. As for the love triangle with Kili, if you watch the extended version of The Hobbit, when they make it to Rivendell, Kili starts flirting with an elf girl. That makes the scenes in Smaug more understandable.

  • Cube

    I haven’t commented on this site in a while, since the changes in the comment system, but this article has prompted me to finally register so I could add my 2 cents.

    I couldn’t agree with the author more. I went to see this with my wife, 7 year old and my 62 year old Dad. The only person who enjoyed it was the 7 year old and most of that was because he could stay up late and eat popcorn & candy.

    I have read the Hobbit and LOTR at least 10 times each and enjoyed the first trilogy and thought that first Hobbit wasn’t bad. We didn’t have issues with the frame rate in the first movie and decided to see this in 3D . Worst decision ever. Everything looked fake. EVERYTHING. All the complaints about how it looked like video were apparent in 3D. Do not see this in 3D, it will completely ruin the experience.

    I don’t know if this was rushed after the final cut (PJ often worked the previous films to last minute) but a lot of the CGI looked awful. Like pre-vis model awful. The models in the barrel ride were so obvious and fake looking that it takes you out of the experience. Parts of Gandalf running around looking for the Necromancer were so badly rendered that his nose was three times it’s normal size and came to a sharp point.

    But as bad as some of the rushed effects feel, it is the massacre of the story that really hurts. PJ spends so much time trying to connect it to LOTR and forcing in stuff that is not needed that it is a disservice. A chance meeting of Gandalf and Thorin turns into a planned meeting of Gandalf. PJ does the exact same cameo down to biting into something as he did in Fellowship. It all feels forced and every trite.

    Why are they still being chased at the start? Did the eagles just drop them off 100 yards from the orcs? I get that the pacing of the story needed a push at the beginning but this chase by Orcs is a little too much this time around. The Beorn stuff is good but then the journey into Mirkwood turns into a LSD trip instead of long journey into darkness. The spider scene is well done, and the capture by elves as well, but then the film goes off the rails due to two elves.

    This movie should have been called “The Hobbit: Legolas is the Coolest Elf Ever! OMG!!!!” because once he is on the screen the movie spirals into awfulness. What could have been a cool background cameo turns into an Orlando Bloom feature film. The love triangle stuff is so out of left field and forced that it bores people into tears.

    The sense that the dwarves get more hopeless and come to respect Bilbo after he recuses them from the spiders and elves is not in the film at all. The barrel scene goes on too long, the CGI is awful in places and the concept that the party sneaks out is completely thrown out the window.

    Then comes the longest borefest in any of these films-entering Laketown. I was so bored but was worried that my 7 year old would start getting antsy, fortunately he was on his best pre-Xmas behavior and suffered through it. Bard becomes a different character and his bow is replaced with an anti-aircraft bow. A guess because bigger is always better or some crap like that.

    Then the need to pull in the fact that this is the same universe as LOTR comes calling again and we get a dwarf that somehow knows about Kingsfoil to save a character that shouldn’t even be in Laketown and will die in the next film anyway. Meanwhile we get another repeat and shout out to LOTR so that Gandalf can get captured just like in Fellowship, and again the CGI is awful.

    Then we’re treated to more of how amazing Legolas is. I grew up on a steady diet of 80′s action films, video games and comics and do not have a problem with fantasy violence. However, there are so many beheadings and brutal killing that the sense that this is a kid’s story is completely gone. Finally after the “Legolas Adventure Show”™ is over for the second time we finally get to the main part of the actual story. Again this rushed, so the sense that they have to journey from Laketown to the mountain and then spend time looking for the secret door changes into a quick run because they have to get there before sun down. Where in the story you get the sense that they have traveled for months to reach this point, in the movie it feels like it took them only three days.

    Instead of showing the dwarves to be the cowards they are in the book and Bilbo stepping up to the plate to take care of their business, Bilbo is told to go in and he does. All tension and character development is gone.

    Smaug is great and the it looks like that is where they spent all the money and time to render the CGI. Then they ruin it by having the dwarves showing up and doing this incredibly long and drawn out plan that somehow works. It is soooo bad. Then the film ends. You seriously feel like it should have had ten more minutes to take care of business but I guess they needed to wrap things up.

    I think that the ending film will be better and I guess it was too much to expect all 6 movies to be decent. I’m really looking forward to when these are all out on blu-ray and a hard-core nerd like myself edits out all the crap and makes a four hour movie that is thousand times better than this turd-fest is.

    OK, rant done.

    • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

      Good to see someone angrier than I am, I suppose. You’d go so far as to edit the film yourself? Now that’s hardcoreness I can respect..

  • Bepo

    ” Say what you want about PJ’s excessiveness, but he gets the little details right on most of the time…” Ahaha. Sure he does, right after he rewrites 90% of the source material.

    I liked the 1st movie, I really did. But this one?
    FUUUUUUUUUUUUU.
    All the action sequences were too long, waaaay too long.

    The chase inside the Lonely Mountain? Mate, I am not an expert goldsmith, but I’m skeptical of the physics at work with that gold statue.

    What really ticked me off (and bored me to death) the most is the ridiculous romance between Kili and Tauriel. A several hundred-year-old elf suddenly falls in love with a young dwarf she’s just taken prisoner because… errr? Let’s not forget that the gang has been on the road for some time, through wind and rain, running through goblin lairs, and completely covered in spider webs. When was the last time they had a shower? Can you imagine a reverse scenario? Where Legolas falls in love with a sweaty and muddy female dwarf, her hair still matted from spider webs? LOL no, ewww, that’s icky. But immortal elf maidens totally dig that in a man. Or dwarf, whatever.

    I haven’t been this angry since Sulu’s foldable katana in the new Star Trek.

    • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

      That gold statue was the worst moment for me in a franchise I love since Vader’s “NOOOOOOOOOO!”

  • TJ Fink

    Perfect review.

    • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

      Thanks, TJ. I thought I might have gone overboard since I conceived it as a rant prior to Paul letting me do a full review, but it pretty much represents my feelings. I thought I’d get bombed, but looks like I’m actually on the same page as everyone else for once.

  • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

    Smaug was really the star of the third act, obviously, but they kept doing stuff like BAM! orcs on the rooftops, but here comes Legolas to save the day! The lead orc has come to kill our heroes, so Legolas will duel him to the death! He’s fleeing before out hero’s assault, but Legolas chases him into the wild; a lone hero! At this point, I’m thinking there were a crapload of heroes in the movie already. Did we really need him to come take over most of the actual heroing?.

    Good points, though. I do have a knack for using overstatement as a device (it’s more fun that way), and you are right about Thorin ditching Kili. I felt like his obsession should have been more gradual, but the movie was kept so unnecessarily busy that Thorin was lost in the folds even more so than Bilbo.

  • Stephen Brookins

    I’m almost certain in either the hobbit or the slmarillion, Gandalf is said to have been fighting the necromancer in the south. I’ve heard something about parts of the silmarillion coming into the 3rd movie. Also the silmarillion is great. Even if it is the old testament of middle earth.

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