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.
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.
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!
- 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. ↩
- Because your memory is the second thing to go. ↩
- After the obligatory 20 minutes of superflous previews, our show started promptly at 12:20 AM, and the final credits wrapped at 2:58). ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Not the 4-letter word I normally use in real life. ↩
- 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 ↩
- Maybe it’s to make his (and possible her) death in part 3 more poignant. ↩
- 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. ↩