Vraeden reviews – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

December 14, 2013

Community, Opinions, Out-of-Game

After being released two weeks ago for what seems like everyone outside the United States, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug1 (DOS) opened Friday.  I went to see it, and this is my initial review.  You probably know how it ends, but because the movies deviate from the books, this is your spoiler warning.  Click the back button now if you have not seen the movie and do not want to be spoiled for some of the content.  I will not hide any text using the spoiler tags.  You have been warned.


Hobbit DOS

I went to the midnight show on Friday morning, saw the 2-D, low frame rate version. Sadly, no one dressed up in costume. But I did wear my White Tree of Gondor t-shirt.  Another disclaimer: It’s been probably 25 years since I’ve read the book, so if my recollections of how it’s “supposed” to go are fuzzy, I’m blaming my old age.2

What I liked

Since breaking movies up into multiple parts is all the rage now (see Harry Potter and The Hunger Games), a lot of these movies assume you have seen the first part of the series going in to the latter ones.  There is no fancy lead-in, and no plot recap from the first movie.  If you have not seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (AUJ) yet and you haven’t read the book, you’ll be lost.  I like that.  Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back played similarly when it starts with the probe droids being shot out all over the galaxy, but all of the Star Wars movies have the ubiquitous screen crawl at the beginning.  DOS has a short scene of Gandalf and Thorin meeting in Bree 1 year prior to AUJ, and then goes straight to Thorin’s Company on the run from Azog.

At the end, just when you think Thorin, Bilbo and the dwarves have defeated Smaug, the dragon takes off to go unleash some mayhem on the world and the movie ends.  That’s right: fade to black, cue music, roll the credits.  It was Fan.  Freaking.  Tastic.  One person in our theater stood up and shouted, “What the (bleep)? They can’t (bleeping) end it like that! Holy (bleeping) (bleep)!  Arrrrrrrgggghhhhhh!”  Sure they can.  Peter Jackson wants more of your money, and he wants to rub it in Harvey Weinstein’s face.  Everyone then started grumbling about having to wait until August for the last movie.  Make them leave wanting more!

The barrel chase/escape sequence was breath-taking, although I’m glad I saw the 2-D, low frame rate version, or I may have gotten motion sickness.

Martin Freeman is the heart of the movie, and his performance was just right.  I liked how even though Gollum is gone, we start to see how the One Ring is starting to (negatively) influence Bilbo.  I know some people didn’t like him in the first movie, but I do.

I just developed a celebrity crush on Evangeline Lily.

Not to sound like it’s the be-all, end-all of modern movies, or sound like I don’t have anything good to say about the rest of the movie, but the production value is magnificent.  Between the actual sets and the CGI, the movie looks awesome and makes you feel like it actually happened.  Some of the elements are obviously computer generated (the barrel chase, just like the run through Goblin Town in AUJ), but they are not cartoonish, which was something that other movies approach.

The animators who brought Smaug to life deserve a big fruit basket from Peter Jackson.  Probably a nice Christmas bonus, too.

You can’t talk about Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies without also discussing their length, and at just under three hours total running time, DOS is long.3  Still, because they did a lot of the “set up” in AUJ, there is very little need for expository dialogue or world-building in DOS, and they get straight to the action.  To that end, there is a lot of action, and the pace of the movie keeps things going at a good clip, so it doesn’t feel like it’s 3 hours of seat time.4

What I didn’t like

There is a single gargantuan plot hole, which only highlights Tolkien’s deficiencies in his grasp of modern military strategy.  While this can partially be explained by his military training and experience being rooted in the old Napoleonic tactics of the First World War,5  it also feeds into the theme that pervades The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that the journey is more important than the destination.  As with LOTR, my biggest issue is Gandalf’s under-use of the Eagles.  After being the plot mechanism that rescues Thorin’s Company from Azog at the end of AUJ, they drop our heroes on the wrong side of Mirkwood on the way to Erebor.  What the heck?6  Could they not take them over the elves and straight to Dale?7  Did they have a hot date or something more important to do?

Although the other members of the company get to do more, there are still really only three characters who ever do anything of consequence: Thorin, Bilbo and Gandalf.  When the dwarves split up at Laketown, it seems forced, like an unnecessary B-plot (actually it’s the C-plot since Gandalf has set out for Dol Guldur on his own).

No dwarf singing.

Despite what I said above, both Hobbit movies are clocking in at around 5 hours combined running time, and it seems like a huge investment of time.  While this one doesn’t seem laborious as AUJ was in parts, there are a couple of scenes where you look back and either want things to speed up or wish they had cut a sequence down by about 5 minutes.  After the third movie comes out, it really will be faster to read the book than watch the movies.

Orlando Bloom plays Legolas as a very uptight, stiff as a board elf.  I don’t know if he was mailing it in or if that was intentional.  Clearly he’s not the elf that he is (or becomes) in the LOTR, but his portrayal is very flat.

What you may not like

There are lots of deviations from the books, and this has the purists up in arms.  The introduction of Azog as the primary antagonist/rival to Thorin was something I heard about from a lot of Tolkien fans from AUJ.  In this movie, we get a fabricated female elf character (Tauriel) to fill out a manufactured love triangle between her, Legolas (no surprise) and Kili (surprise!).  Is that really necessary?8

Beorn was terribly under-utilized as a character, and really doesn’t get enough screen time or character development.

I don’t remember how Thranduil was characterized in the books, but he doesn’t act as I envision an elf king.  Maybe it’s just my perception, but I always think of elves as haughty and aloof; Thranduil is flat-out douchey.  Whether he felt slighted in some way by the dwarves, he locks them up proclaiming that 100 years in a cell is a short time to an elf, and he impulsively executes an orc prisoner, after seeming to promise to release it.  Having said that, there seems to be no love lost between elves and orcs, so maybe that’s not as out-of-character as I believe it to be.

Summary

I enjoyed DOS much more than AUJ.  I still think some of the dwarves are just window-dressing and the B- and C- plots come off as either unnecessary or as after-thoughts.

Of course, none of the Hobbit or LOTR movies can be viewed in a vacuum or as singular products; DOS was never intended to be a stand alone movie; it’s a third of one big movie, just as ESB is for Star Wars.

In that context, I give it an 8 out of 10 with high marks for production value, sheer entertainment value, thrilling action sequences and a devotion to the base source material that allows for deviation from the pure text while still encapsulating the spirit of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and deductions for a long run time trying to pack in too much content.9  I think some of the “extra” characters and sub-plots should have been stripped out to make a more streamlined movie.

Since I’m writing this on a limited amount of sleep, I may change my assessment with rest and a second (and probably third) viewing.

EDIT – Mrs. Vraeden and I were at dinner and a buddy of mine calls me up and says, “Do you guys want to go see the Hobbit movie tonight? Since Mrs. Vraeden didn’t go to the midnight show, we said “yes” and went to an evening screening of DOS (2-D, low frame rate). That means in just under 24 hours, I’ve devoted a quarter of my day to The Hobbit.  By way of commentary, even after a second viewing, my assessment above remains essentially unchanged.

Vraeden’s Holiday Bonus Features:

One of my favourite sites on the interwebs is Grantland.com, which has this article called Should You See It? A Curious Consumer’s Decision-Making Guide to The Desolation of Smaug

There’s nothing at the end of the credits.

This isn’t Middle-Earth related, but December 14th is Wear Star Wars, Share Star Wars Day. It’s not just a Star Wars thing, it’s for anything science-fiction related for people to take pride in getting their nerd on.

If I don’t get anything posted later this month: Happy/Joyful/Merry Christmas/Festivus/Kwanzaa, and may you have peace, health and prosperity into the new year!


  1. Remeber that it’s pronounced “Smawg” not “Smog”, because the former is what a dragon would say and the latter is apparently beneficial now.  At least in China.
  2. Because your memory is the second thing to go.
  3. After the obligatory 20 minutes of superflous previews, our show started promptly at 12:20 AM, and the final credits wrapped at 2:58).
  4. The theaters here had the option of a back-to-back AUJ at 9 PM, followed by DOS at midnight; I almost went, but I didn’t want to wear a crease in my seat or have my butt plant roots.  Besides, AUJ has been in the regular rotation on the HBOs, so it seems like it’s on 7 times a day.
  5. Tolkien wasn’t alone; most everyone except the Germans, Billy Mitchell, Yamamoto Isoroku and a handful of others all went into the War (the second one) still thinking like Napoleon, and most of them paid a heavy price for it.
  6. Not the 4-letter word I normally use in real life.
  7. Just as Gandalf should have loaded Frodo and the ring up on an eagle, flown straight to Mount Doom and then pushed the ring (and even Frodo, too) into the volcano
  8. Maybe it’s to make his (and possible her) death in part 3 more poignant.
  9. As a point of reference, for me, a 1 means I will get up in the middle and leave, 5 is a perfectly acceptable movie that I don’t feel is a waste of my time, and a 10 says that I hid out in the theater to catch the next showing, or I’d pay full price to see it again after the ushers throw me out of the Cineplex.
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About Vræden

I was suckered into playing an MMO by some friends and have been stuck around ever since. My "main" is a minstrel on the Elendilmir server, but I'm a pretty casual player who likes a good raid every now and then. My healing skills are spectacularly average, and I am known as the Elf Queen of Lousy Healing to my friends. I like long walks on the beach, puppies and mowing down orcs by the dozen. If you see me in-game, say hi or send me a tell. You can also email me or follow me on the Twitter.

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21 Responses to “Vraeden reviews – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

  1. Flatfoot Says:

    *sigh
    The Eagle thing again..

    http://periannath.com/feature/why-doesnt-frodo-just-ride-an-eagle-to-mount-doom/

    Personally I find Gandalf sweet talking a frikken moth in FotR much more idiotic than the Eagles.

    Looking at it objectively Jackson´s (AND Phillipa Boyen´s AND Fran Walsh´) ideas on improving the tale with more useless romance and other stuff fail pretty hard compared to Tolkien´s own weakish Deus Ex Machina moments.

    Reply

  2. ladyofrohan Says:

    Dropping in to agree with you on how awesome the ending was :)

    Personally I am sick of love triangles, and any attempt of PJ to manufacture one that wasn’t already there (Aragorn/Arwen/Eowyn was sort of an aborted love triangle) rubs me very much the wrong way. That said, Tauriel is amazing.

    Reply

    • Avatar of Vræden
      Vræden Says:

      I don’t mind the persona of Tauriel as a strong female character Tolkien’s story clearly lacks, but I do have a problem with the way she and Legolas are portrayed as super-elven fighting machines. Where other elves are getting ganked by orcs left and right, they’re mowing them down with a level of efficiency that is reserved for Jedi Knights, ninjas and Neo in the Matrix.

      Seriously, after seeing Legolas at Pelennor Fields, it just makes Haldir look like a chump for getting killed at the Hornburg, and I wonder why 100 elves couldn’t kill everything at the Black Gate and simply walk into Mordor.

      Reply

      • Eva Says:

        The Matrix was what it looked to me as well. And it really seems as if the whole post-capture plot was intentionally shaped so he could have more of the two Elves showing that the laws of gravity clearly don’t exist in Middle-earth by fighting orcs in places where neither Elves nor orcs should be.

        Many of the fight scenes seemed just desperate to come up with *another* way of having Legolas/Tauriel killing three orcs at once using a technique the movies haven’t shown yet.

        The lack of gravity and other laws of nature is why the fighting and chain-swinging bits in the mountains made me cringe too. I don’t see why those poor exiled dwarves had to be coal miners etc., when clearly they could have just started a circus.

        Reply

        • Avatar of Nick McNeal
          Nick McNeal Says:

          Eva, that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking. The movies’ just seem “desperate” like you said to come up with having a new or different way of something, fighting specifically.

          Vræden, Haldir only was a commander/died at the Battle of Hornburg in the movie. There was no reference of him being a commander in the book. Little changes like this can cause nonsensical things, like your example of Legolas survive Pelennor Fields and Haldir looking like a “chump” at being killed at the Hornburg. Elves can only be so strong/fast, that’s why when you see elves doing such inhumane things you automatically think how that level of skill is reserved for “Jedi Knights, ninjas and Neo in the Matrix”.

          Reply

  3. Goreamir Says:

    Peter Jackson addressed the same eagles thing in the AUJ commentary. I guess the eagles were not available for “whatever” they’ll help out at their leisure, they’re not really protectors of Middle Earth. I guess they just figured “eh, we’ll take ‘em this far Gandy, give us more notice next time you need us, mmk?”

    Reply

    • Eva Says:

      If I recall correctly, there’s also something in the book about men shooting at the eagles because of past interactions related to the unauthorised removal of sheep, so they might not want to go too near to Lake-town.

      Reply

    • Avatar of Vræden
      Vræden Says:

      In the context of the movies alone (and I’m not a hardcore Tolkien fan, so the movies are my sole frame of reference for these reviews) there is no explanation for the ways the eagles are used other than a deus ex machina that defies logic and sound military strategy. They are not portrayed as defenders of Middle-Earth, and you can’t tell me they couldn’t fly high enough over Laketown to avoid longbows.

      If you’re going to put the eagles in the movie as the plot mechanism that rescues the dwarves from Azog and Gandalf from Orthanc, there needs to be some rational explanation from the screen (and not in the DVD extras) other than “their role in Middle-Earth is buried half way through The Silmarillion and the reasons why they only show up at certain plot points was retconned in by Christopher after his father died.”

      Reply

  4. Flatfoot Says:

    Guess it´s too much to ask clicking that link explaining eagles in a discuss about the frikken things.
    Quoting then it must be (lazy lot). ;)

    ” according to The Silmarillion, Eagles are Maiar (lesser gods or angels) incarnated as large birds.
    No matter what Eagles are, all sources agree they are servants of Manwë Súlimo, King of the Valar (greater gods or archangels)
    The Eagles don’t make the quest to destroy the Ring easy because the gods want mortals TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM ON THEIR OWN”
    (emphasis mine)

    So the answer to the eagle conundrum in LotR AND Hobbit is quite literally:
    GROW UP AND TAKE CARE OF SH!IT ON YOUR OWN.
    -God

    :P

    Reply

    • Avatar of Vræden
      Vræden Says:

      I refer the right honourable gentleman to the answer I gave some moments ago.

      Reply

      • natefu Says:

        “There is a single gargantuan plot hole, which only highlights Tolkien’s deficiencies in his grasp of modern military strategy.”

        Well… to be fair, it seems like Tolkien did explain it in his books. If anyone didn’t explain it, it was Jackson. Maybe it’s good for us not to be spoon-fed the lore, and actually, you know, have to read the books to get what’s going on.

        IMO I’d pay extra for an Un-Extended version of that movie, with an hour of less fan fiction in my Hobbit. :)

        Reply

        • natefu Says:

          Little caveat to the above, I do agreed that in the movie, some explanation should have been given. At the very least to close that plot-hole.

          Reply

  5. Rabbitses Says:

    poor movie theater guy thought he had to wait until August? We have to wait until December!

    Reply

  6. Smugglin Says:

    Tolkien was not a military genius, and his failures in military strategy probably stem from his own experiences. Many people know that Tolkien served in WW1, what many people don’t know is that he hated the idea of joining up and fighting. During that time men were enlisting in droves and Tolkien was seen by his family and contemporaries to be odd when he put off enlisting at first. He was also not a strategist. He was a Second Lt. and served as a Signals officer( communications). The real strategist throughout the ME stories is Gandalf. Despite his ” Genius”, he is another being made human and he is flawed because of it. As a character, this is what I love most about him. He tries so hard to take on monumental tasks and despite all his efforts he his confronted by a very human construct- Even if you try very hard, somethings are beyond your control.

    Reply

  7. Pasduil Says:

    > modern military strategy

    Modern??? In the mists of the Third Age, before all our recorded history?

    I haven’t seen the movie but in Tolkien’s Middle Earth the eagles are not anyone’s to command, nor are they inherently a military force. They’re eagles who do what they will as they see fit. Maybe in PJ’s version things are different.

    Strategy in Middle Earth can’t be the same as in our world. There are individual warriors that can fight hordes of orcs, there are individual “names” that we are told are worth a thousand soldiers apiece, there are beings that need no weapon but fear, there are beings that cannot be killed except by the right person with the right weapon at the right time.

    Some of those things are hard to reconcile with what we know to be reality, but if you’re not able to suspend your disbelief about such things, you might as well give up reading and watching fantasy. The laws of that universe are just different.

    Reply

  8. Samar Says:

    When writing a review of the movie, i’d hope that the reviewer would be a little more objective when completely discrediting Tolkien’s work specifically. If the reviewer has professed to not being proficient in Tolkien lore, then why do they feel obliged to critique it? I can understand if being a fan of just the movies, the confusion with why the eagles don’t just carry them around wherever they want to go. But don’t make presumptions about things that you have no knowledge in.

    Reply

    • Avatar of Goldenstar
      Goldenstar Says:

      The movies are not created just for Tolkien fans. Reading the book is not a requirement for watching the movies or even for playing LOTRO. I see nothing wrong with someone giving their perspective on something they watched. I don’t need my reviewers of other movies to be a scholar on the back story of every movie so I see no reason to start here.

      Reply

      • Samar Says:

        With respect, my point was that the reviewer here was critiquing Tolkien’s knowledge of warfare without knowing fully how the eagles interacted with the inhabitants of middle earth. I never did say that in order to review the movie or play LOTRO a person has to read the books.

        And you’re right, there’s nothing wrong at all with Vraeden giving her opinion and her movie review was fair and even.

        Cheers

        Reply

    • Avatar of Vræden
      Vræden Says:

      My review is of the work in front of me, in this case the movie. I am not a hardcore fan, nor am I a serious movie critic. I know what I like, but I will also call out things that don’t make sense.

      I bring up Tolkien and the eagles because as I recall, they appear in the books, and aren’t something that was just made up for the movies.

      As I mentioned previously, the role of the eagles in Middle-Earth is not explained from the screen, thereby leaving a giant plot hole. A similar example is the Death Star trench sequence in Star Wars: Episode IV: An New Hope: Take that Peter Jackson! We Have More Titles Than You!, which makes for great film because it generates tension and intensity, but is bad tactics (why not just enter the trench at the end by the exhaust port, instead of giving Darth Vader several kilometers in a confined area to gun you down?).

      As much stuff that Peter Jackson either added to the Hobbit movies (Legolas) or fabricated outright (Tauriel), this could have been solved with a very simple bit of throwaway banter that would add about 15 seconds to a 150 minute movie. For example:

      [The eagles drop Thorin's Company off on top of a mountain in sight of the Lonely Mountain but on the wrong side of Mirkwood]

      BILBO: Excuse me, excuse me, Mr. Eagle! Could you perhaps take us a bit closer to the mountain over there?

      DORI: Aye, could they have left us further away?

      GANDALF: Who knows why the eagles do what they do? Be glad they saved us from that pack of orcs, master dwarf, and that we are that much closer to our destination!

      [Gandalf shrugs and attends to the unconscious Thorin]

      As it is, the eagles are portrayed as simply giant birds that show up when Gandalf sends a moth their way, instead of intelligent beings (if a dragon and a walking tree can talk, so can an eagle, right?) who act of their own accord. Even if the fault is with Jackson, not with Tolkien’s source material, this could have been taken care of very easily.

      Reply

  9. Frieja Says:

    I attributed Orlando Bloom’s stiff portrayal of Legolas as completely intentional. I would venture he was a bit of a stuck up brat in his younger years being the son of a somewhat arrogant and ruthless king. I believe he went through a personality change over the next 60 years, and his time in the Fellowship with Gimli contributed to even more change. At least, that is how I view it.

    I think PJ made Thranduil just a bit more ruthless in the movie than he was portrayed in the books. Yes, he’s a high elf and all that, but he’s no Elrond. He also has single-handedly kept his people in safety and prosperity while Sauron and his evil minions were standing on his doorstep – all WITHOUT the help of a ring (cough cough Elrond and Galadriel).

    Reply

  10. Pegasus Says:

    I liked the new characters – Thranduil, Tauriel, Bard, etc. and thought it was great having Legolas in the story again. I agree with Frieja’s comments above, that Legolas’ demeanor in DOS was entirely intentional. IMO it is to set a starting point for what is going to be an extreme character arc, turning this Legolas into the Legolas we meet up with again in FOTR. All the cast shines in DOS, we get some stunning new locations, more plot threads to enjoy, and exquisite new music. Loved it :-).

    Reply

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