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Josh Reviews The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The years during which we saw the release of Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings remains one of the best cinematic experiences of my lifetime, and I don’t expect that to be equaled any-time soon.  Those three films are magnificent, but my memories of the years in which that trilogy was released encompasses not just the films themselves, but all of the excitement and anticipation and speculation, from the first-time I saw that initial teaser trailer (via a very slow download on my dial-up modem) that teased the three-film adaptation (that slow shot at the end, showing the entire fellowship, and gradually revealing the three-year release schedule for the three films, is so fantastic!!), through the release of each film and its subsequent extended edition, and of course all all of the same excitement in the years between the films, awaiting the next installment.

Peter Jackson’s first film in his three-part adaptation of The Hobbit, titled The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was criticized by many but I think it’s a very strong, under-appreciated film.  I have seen the film several times, in the past year, and I stand by my original review.  The second installment, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, is very much of a piece with that first film.  The Desolation of Smaug improves on its predecessor in that, while one could accuse An Unexpected Journey of being occasionally slow or unwieldy as it was getting the story going, The Desolation of Smaug is a much faster-paced film, with far more emphasis on adventure and spectacle.

While I loved The Desolation of Smaug, there is no question that both of these Hobbit films are a far cry from the incredible quality of Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy.  What made the LOTR films great cinema, rather than just being great fantasy/adventure films or being great adaptations, was the powerful emotional punch of the stories they told.  I am not ashamed to share that all three of those LOTR movies contained moments that brought me to tears when I first saw them in theatres.  In The Fellowship of the Ring, it was Sam’s declaration, in the elvish boat at the end, that he’d made a promise not to abandon Frodo.  In The Two Towers, it was the haunting glimpse into Arwen’s lonely fate that awaited her even if everything that she hoped for came to pass.  In The Return of the King, it was pretty much every moment that came after Aragorn’s statement, to the four kneeling Hobbits, that: “my friends… you bow to no one.”  (I’ve seen The Return of the King many times since that first viewing, and while I hold it together at the end a lot better than I did that first time, I do still get misty at that moment, as well as at Frodo’s sorrowful realization that, while the Shire was saved, not so for him.  And I also tend to obey Gandalf when he tells his friends, at the moment of their final parting at the Gray Havens: “I will not say do not weep… for not all tears are an evil.”)  While I have loved both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, there is nothing in either of those two films that comes anywhere close to the emotional impact of those moments I have just described.  That’s a disappointment, but a somewhat understandable one, as the original book of The Hobbit has nowhere near the thematic weight of Tolkien’s later Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Like all four of Peter Jackson’s previous J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations, The Desolation of Smaug is a huge film, with so much to take in and absorb.  I saw it in gorgeous IMAX 3-D, and the visuals of the film are astounding, absolutely stunning.  (I did NOT see it in 48 fps, and have no interest in doing so.  Though after the over-all failure of the release of An Unexpected Journey in 48 fps, I haven’t heard much about that for Smaug.)  The detail and craftsmanship on display in every single aspect of the film, from the sets to the costuming to the CGI visual effects, is staggering.  As were the previous four films, The Desolation of Smaug is a long film.  But while even I, who enjoyed it, will gladly admit that An Unexpected Journey felt the weight of its length, The Desolation of Smaug moves much faster.  When the film ended and the credits rolled, I couldn’t believe that over two and a half hours had already passed.  This film MOVES.  All of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films have been built to reward multiple viewings, and I can’t wait to see this film again so that I can soak in its details.  I have a lot to say about it after my first viewing, of course, but this is also a film that I feel I need to see again before I can fully digest it.  Nevertheless, let’s dive into some analysis, shall we?

Peter Jackson and his team found very clever ways to open both The Two Towers and The Return of the King (two films that, like Smaug, pick up a story already in progress).  The Two Towers began with an awesome visual-effects set-piece, an expansion of Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog.  The Return of the King had a much quieter opening, but one that was even more emotionally rich: the story of Smeagol’s original discovery of the One Ring.  I was very curious to see how Mr. Jackson & co. (including co-writers Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Guillermo del Toro) had found to begin The Desolation of Smaug.  This film’s opening isn’t as memorable as either that of The Two Towers or The Return of the King, but it’s a clever and unexpected way to begin, as we flash back to see Gandalf’s first meeting with Thorin Oakenshield (at a very familiar locale).  It’s a great scene that provides a nice bit of backstory, and also does a great job at re-setting the stage for the story of The Hobbit to continue.  Then we’re right back to where we left Gandalf, Bilbo, and the Dwarves at the end of the last film: fleeing the Goblins.

They find temporary refuge in the home of the skin-changer Beorn.  I am conflicted about the inclusion of Beorn in the film.  On the one hand, I love Beorn in the book, and I’m thrilled that he’s in the movie.  On the other hand, the sequence with Beorn in the film is way shorter than I’d expected, to the point that I wonder why it was included at all.  Narratively, the brief sequence serves no purpose.  Beorn helps Thorin & co. by giving them all ponies, ponies which they they get off and send back to Beorn literally five seconds later.  We could have cut right from the Dwarves fleeing from the Goblins to their arrival at Mirkwood forrest, and lost nothing of value.  In the book, I love the wonderful interactions between Gandalf and Bilbo with the crotchety Beorn, but we get hardly any of that in the film.  So I’m left wondering why Beorn was kept in at all.  I wonder if the Extended Edition will give us some more meat to these scenes.  As they exist in the theatrical version, they were a bit of a letdown.

Then we get to Mirkwood, and Gandalf leaves the Dwarves.  One of the things that both Hobbit films so far have done really well is to improve on the book by giving better reasons for why Gandalf has to keep getting separated from the Dwarves.  In the book he’s constantly coming and going, so as to give a reason why Bilbo and the Dwarves can get into jeopardy that would otherwise have been easily solved by Gandalf.  In the book, when they arrive at Mirkwood, Gandalf just says, “oh, I’ve got some business in the south,” and rides off.  But here, we see that the growing threat of the Necromancer is what pulls Gandalf away from the Dwarves and their quest.  That makes a lot more narrative sense.  And, of course, I love that in both Hobbit films we get to follow Gandalf and see what he gets up to, in a series of sequences stitched together from material in the LOTR appendices and other sources from Tolkien, plus some clever extrapolation by Peter Jackson & co.  One of my favorite moments in The Desolation of Smaug is the scene in which the Necromancer’s true nature is revealed (such a clever visual moment) and Gandalf’s terrific fight with the Necromancer.  As with the great Gandalf-Saruman fight in Fellowship, Peter Jackson & co. have again brought to live an incredible wizard fight in an original, creative way.  It’s great.  (Though a few small quibbles: Gandalf seems foolish to send Radagast away, rather than the two of them entering Dol Goldur together.  It seems Gandalf sends Radagast to get help from Galadriel, which makes some sense, but why can’t Gandalf communicate telepathically with her, the way we earlier-in-the-film saw him doing when she contacts him at the edge of Mirkwood?  Can Gandalf only receive messages from her, rather than initiating them himself?  If so, the film doesn’t really explain that.  Also, when Gandalf is defeated by the Necromancer, there’s no real reason why the orcs wouldn’t have then killed him, is there?  That the Necromancer would just throw him in a cage seems a little weak to me.)

Meanwhile, in Mirkwood, Bilbo and the Dwarves get into a lot of trouble, first with the spiders, and then with the Elves.  I was really looking forward to seeing the sequence with the spiders brought to life on film, and it doesn’t disappoint.  The spiders are incredibly horrid, and the whole sequence is wonderfully creepy and scary.  Great stuff.  Also, I adored the genius move of Bilbo’s only being able to hear the spiders speak while wearing the ring.  In the book, many of the animals and creatures that Bilbo encounter can speak.  I’d wondered how that would work on film.  I was pleased that Peter Jackson chose not to have the eagles speak when we saw then in An Unexpected Journey.  Having Bilbo only be able to hear the spiders talk while wearing the ring is a great solution in this sequence, as the connection of the evil spiders to the evil of the ring makes perfect sense.  It also gives us the pleasure of hearing a little spider-dialogue while enabling the spiders to stay more scary rather than silly when our heroes encounter them out in the real world.  (It’s also interesting that Bilbo first hears Smaug speak while wearing the ring.  I thought for a moment that it would also be the case with Smaug that we’d only hear him speak when Bilbo was wearing the ring, which would have been cool, though quickly I saw that we still hear Smaug even when Bilbo takes the ring off.  But more on Smaug, the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities, in a moment.)  (Don’t worry, I’m just quoting Tolkien.  I LOVED Smaug on film!)

For now, let’s talk about the Elves.  The Dwarves quickly go from being captured by the spiders to being captured by the Wood-Elves, and we get to see King Thranduil (briefly glimpsed in An Unexpected Journey), and, in an expansion from the text of Tolkien, Thranduil’s son Legolas (Orlando Bloom reprises his role from LOTR) and Tauriel (a new character created entirely for the movies, played by Lost’s Evangeline Lily).  I love the weird, creepy way that Thranduil is played.  We didn’t get to see as much of the character as I’d hoped, so hopefully there will be more of him in film 3.  It’s great seeing Legolas again, and certainly his inclusion in the story is very logical.  He’s depicted as a bit more of a prick than he was in LOTR, which makes sense because this is a younger Legolas, and his whole arc in LOTR is to learn to trust and befriend the other races of Middle Earth, particularly Dwarves.  So the challenge of Legolas’ inclusion here is that he can’t be given too much of a character-arc, for risk of upsetting the arc he has in LOTR.  He has to end these films as mistrustful of Dwarves as he began.  It will be interesting to see how Peter Jackson threads that needle in film 3.  Tauriel meanwhile, is great, a very smooth inclusion into the story.  Evangeline Lily is terrific at portraying an elf, and it’s great to see a strong female character added to the mix.  I was very surprised by the idea of Tauriel’s befriending the Dwarf Kili, but I liked that little story-line, all except for the very last moment we saw of it, late in the film.  When their fingers brush, I thought it was a great moment.  When Kili uses the word love, I thought it was a bridge too far.  Again, as with so much in this film, it’ll be interesting to see how this all resolves when we get to film 3.  I’ll reserve final judgments until then.

The bulking up of the involvement in the Elves in this story, particularly the inclusion of Legolas and Tauriel, leads to a lot of fantastic Elvish fighting, and in particular some spectacular Elf versus Orc action.  The “Barrels Out of Bond” sequence was one of my favorite moments in the book, and one of the moments I have been most excited to see realized on screen.  I am happy to say I was not disappointed in the least, as Peter Jackson and his team of madmen have expanded that sequence into a spectacular action set-piece involving not just Dwarves in barrels crashing down a river, but also a phenomenal Elf versus Orc versus Dwarves fight that had my jaw on the floor.  It’s probably the best scene in the movie, perhaps second only to some of the sequences with Smaug.

The Dwarves next arrive at Laketown.  Here too, we see a lot of expansion of and elaboration upon the material that was in the book, as we see a lot more of Bard (the heroic every-man who will eventually be the one to bring down Smaug), the wealthy and corrupt Master of Lake-Town (played by Stephen Fry), and the new-for-the movies henchman of the Master named Alfrid.  I love Stephen Fry but I wasn’t all that taken with the Master — he seemed too one-note to me.  I wonder if he’ll get more to do in film 3.  Alfrid seemed like a needless re-do of Wormtongue.  Bard, on the other-hand (played by Luke Evans), was terrific, a wonderful expansion of the character from the book.  We spend a lot of time with Bard, and I enjoyed getting to see the complexities of this conflicted, reluctant hero.

Peter Jackson made an interesting decision to deviate from the book by splitting up Thorin’s company at Laketown, with several Dwarves getting left behind. That was a little hard for me to swallow, and I missed having all the Dwarves there when they used the key to enter the Misty Mountain.  On the other hand, I can understand the narrative challenge of giving all twelve of the Dwarves something to do once they got to the Mountain, as well as the desire to give the audience a reason to care about events happening in Laketown, something made much easier if a group of our heroes are there.  There is some great stuff in Laketown, particularly some additional Elf-versus-Orc smackdowns.

Then, at last, Bilbo enters the mountain and we meet Smaug.  I love the way Smaug was brought to life.  His voice (Benedict Cumberbatch, perfectly cast), combined with a fantastic design and extraordinary CGI effects, come together to create the Smaug I had always imagined.  I love all the little details, particularly in the dragon’s face, and also in the way you can see his belly start to heat up when he is preparing to roar forth fire.  Smaug is great, and the scene of Smaug and Bilbo’s first meeting is terrific, a highlight of the film.  It reminds me of the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence from An Unexpected Journey, as the movie briefly becomes a small, two-man stage play, with Bilbo using all of his wits to try to match a creepy, dangerous opponent.  Martin Freeman is phenomenal in this sequence.

The book gave us more great Bilbo-Smaug interactions, though, which the film is sadly missing.  Because after that first Bilbo-Smaug scene, the story explodes into a crazy action sequence inside the Misty Mountain between all the Dwarves and an increasingly-enraged Smaug.  I absolutely understand the desire to give us a not-in-the-book action sequence at this point, and for the most part it’s a lot of fun.  I was disappointed, though, in the stupidity of the Dwarves’ borrowed-from-Alien-3 plan to kill Smaug.  (The idea that there was enough gold just sitting there ready to be smelted, and that Thorin knew that there would just happen to be that huge casting of King Thror ready to be filled with molten gold, is ridiculous.  And that the Dwarves thought that hot molten gold would be able to kill a fire-breathing dragon — whose innards are an inferno and so clearly has a high tolerance for extreme heat! — was dumb dumb dumb.)

I’ve been spending the entire last year wondering just where Peter Jackson would choose to end this middle film.  Would it end with the death of Smaug, leaving film 3 to focus on the Battle of the Five Armies?  Or would Smaug remain in play to be a menace for the final film?  I won’t spoil the film’s ending, but I will say that I didn’t expect the moment they chose to end.  This film ends on an enormous cliffhanger, which is a very bold choice.  Think Back to the Future Part 2 or The Matrix Revolutions.  (No comment on the respective qualities of those films, I’m just talking about the movie-ending cliffhangers.)  The Desolation of Smaug almost feels like it ends right in the middle of a scene!  This causes the film to feel like the least-complete out of Peter Jackson’s five Tolkien films, which is somewhat a weakness, although damn I do love a good cliffhanger, and this is a great one.  I do sort of wish that, to give the film’s ending a bit less of an abrupt nature, we had very briefly cut back to all the other characters and situations right before the end, to give the ending a bit more of a build-up and to better remind us of where exactly everyone was being left off.  But I admire the boldness of the cliffhanger.  I really couldn’t believe it when they cut to black and the credits began.

The Desolation of Smaug may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a ferociously entertaining film and I am hard-pressed to imagine what more I could have wanted out of this film.  Looking back when this trilogy is completed, I suspect an argument could be made that a leaner two-movie version of this story might have been superior to this extended, elaborate three-film version.  But I love Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the world of Tolkien, and I am delighted to have a few more hours to spend immersed in this incredible universe.  I walked out of the theatre smiling, ready for There and Back Again to arrive.  It’s going to be a LOOOONG year.

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