The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of SmaugThis is going to be one of my rare movie reviews. I don’t do this often because I don’t watch a lot of movies and I don’t often have the time to actually type out my thoughts on the ones that I do see. However most of these thoughts have been typed out already so I’m going to levy them into a blog post.

I made a fairly successful attempt at separating in my mind the book from the movie. To this end I will try to not mention any comparisons to the book — it will probably sneak in because I’m too close to the source material for it not to.

First of all the positive:

I think Peter Jackson et. al. are fabulous at writing the kind of literary phrases and dialogue that sound like Tolkien would have written them, even when he never did. Phrases about the elves loving starlight and discussion about the prophecy of the King Under the Mountain all sounded very Tolkien and blended beautifully. The story felt more coherent than the last one, there was less of the flailing around between a children’s slapstick comedy and an adult allegorical fantasy and much of both of those aspects was toned down significantly.

Smaug was awesome, and huge and genuinely terrifying — which I did not think Hollywood could do any more with dragons, having seen too many being trained and ridden. The deviousness and cleverness of the dragon are left intact as well as his immense size and intellect.

I felt like the actors did a tremendous job — though Orlando Bloom looks older than he did in LOTR — and I felt like all of them from Bilbo to Tauriel and Thranduil and the dwarves sold their performances brilliantly, sometimes well enough to make me forget some of the things that bothered me.

The imagery was top notch and beautiful.Tauriel

The things I am ambivalent about:

Beorn and the introduction of his character was way too short for him to feel like anything but an interlude and could have easily been cut entirely (if he wouldn’t end up being so important in the next movie).

The journey through Mirkwood is shortened and the elves are made much less jolly and fae and more like angry cave-dwelling versions of Elrond’s folk. The battle with the spiders is very Hollywood in it’s seeming need to make everything into a team based action scene with ridiculous chases through trees. I think this is a product of veering away from the children’s story that features songs and clever little hobbitses and into an adult action movie. It didn’t really bother me as much as I expected because it made the story move along.

The introduction of Tauriel to the story. She doesn’t detract as much as I expected and I really liked her character — she is way more forgiveable than the swooning Liv Tyler interludes from Two Towers which made me (and still do) furious and bored.

I kind of liked Bard’s family and his character. I thought they were well done. I thought that the barge man with a contract also being an amazing bowman seemed a little farfetched, however, as well as other things about Laketown.

Kili and company staying behind in Laketown. When this first happened I thought I would be mad. Then I found it didn’t really bother me.

Things that I don’t like but I can deal with (I can see why they were done):

Orlando Bloom and Legolas — I understand that showing the Mirkwood elves without showing Legolas would be sort of an egregious oversight on the part of the filmmakers but couldn’t he just be some kind of arrogant prince-ling who insults Thorin in one scene and then is never spoken of again — why couldn’t this be a cameo? I don’t know why he irritated me so much, he’s like the Jar-Jar of LOTR.

Radagast! His performance of idiocy was far enough removed that I did not break out in hives at the mention of his coming and at this point he has to show up since he was so prominently stupid in the first movie but I would have been happier if he was seen getting drunk with Legolas in the only scene in the movie for the two of them.

Bilbo didn’t seal the dwarves barrels. I understand that Jackson wanted to have the cool fight down the river between the dwarves, elves and orcs. I understand that seeing faces and having an action scene is more exciting than watching sealed barrels float down a river with an invisible hobbit clinging to their surface. It doesn’t really make sense, however, for Bilbo to leave them open. If they were closed not even the orcs would have known they were there. It would also eliminate one of the things that I hated about this movie, but I’ll talk about that later.

Gandalf’s battle with Sauron. I felt like it was interesting in an allegorical good-vs-evil/light-vs-dark kind of way. It had some interesting connotations for the Wrath of Galadriel in the third movie and it ties the events of the Hobbit with those of LOTR in an interesting way but all the scenes of wizards/elves/council members dealing with Morgul nonsense from this movie and the last felt like they were out of place — like they were quickly tacked onto an existing story, hmmm.

The-hobbit-the-desolation-of-smaug-activity-bookThings I hated:

Why did the barrels not fill completely with water. This would have slowed their movement in the water significantly and made them ride lower, i.e. more likely to tip. It also completely would have happened in all the splashing and tipping that they went through. This was seriously my single thought through the entire barrel scene… “why isn’t that barrel full of water by now? Wouldn’t that fill up the barrels? Could they do that if the barrels are full of water after all those rapids?”

Elves seem capable of dispatching orcs, who are strong enough to wield enormous maces one-handed, by backhanding them and the bumbling toymakers and miners suddenly become agile fighters whenever orcs are around for them to fight with.

This might stem from my inability to see Orlando Bloom as a real person with real feelings but the Legolas, Tauriel, Kili love triangle thing made me angry, and not because of the Kili and Tauriel parts. If Tauriel is supposed to be making a hard choice between the two males (which is a frustrating movie cliche to begin with) then Legolas should show some more emotional resonance than the stone-faced-I-show-less-emotion-than-Mr.-Spock Orlando Bloom.

What’s so special about a black arrow that makes it able to penetrate a dragon’s hide? Why can’t it just be Bard’s lucky arrow and why does it need a goofy monickered dwarven ballista for it to work? Why did Smaug have to be wounded instead of having an oversight in his golden armor? (I’m straying really close to comparing things to the book here but it bothered me.)

Azog and company. This still grates on my nerves a lot. Sauron, apparently, thinks that Thorin is a huge threat so he has paid assassins looking for him. Azog suddenly forgoes his mission of vengeance and fobs it off on another, even bigger, even scarier, even uglier, even whiter orc? Azog made no sense as a contrived revenge plot in the first movie. The orc pursuit in this one makes even less. All that it served to do was to have some really cool fight scenes (and they were pretty cool to watch, if mostly stupid).

The Master of Laketown and his oh so Wormtounge-like advisor were annoying. I know the Master is supposed to be kind of an idiot and a little bit too controlling and totalitarian but they’re almost farcical and uninspired in this movie — it’s like a comically bad medieval version of 1984.

The orcs attack every time there is a lull in the action, and get dispatched at an alarming rate. Are these guys the storm troopers of Middle Earth? Have they landed a successful blow yet? The elves watch their borders closely and nothing enters Mirkwood without them knowing — except a roving pack of orcs on the hunt for Thorin and company who march right up to the gates of the wood elves kingdom and all but knock on the door. Nobody enters Laketown without the Master’s permission/accepting/knowing except a troop of orcs who somehow ride giant wargs across the only bridge and jump around on clay tile roofs without anybody in town knowing they are there until they attack Bard’s house only to get ambushed by elves who also rode horses into town without the townsfolk or the orcs knowing they were there.

Radagast! I know I said I understood why he had to be here but why can’t we just cut him out of both movies?

Thorin and company fight with Smaug. Smaug stuck around way longer than he should have — as smart as he is — and the dwarves survived running away from him far longer than they should have. As enormously intelligent as Smaug is I found it hard to believe that he would be distracted by the dwarves taking separate paths to the forges. Did Thorin really think that molten gold would hurt Smaug, whose fire is hot enough to possibly melt the one ring (according to Gandalf)?The-Hobbit-The-Desolation-of-Smaug-2

The fighting seemed a little too over the top to me. Especially the scene where Bombur’s barrel rolls up on shore and takes out a bunch of orcs. I chuckled at first as it bounced along, then it kept bouncing along and rolling over orcs and I chuckled again. Then it kept going and then he popped his arms out the side and did some kind of Tasmanian devil impersonation and I groaned inside. Even the fat toy maker can take out orcs with his eyes closed and stuck inside an empty barrel.

This movie brings to mind something that Peter Jackson said in the special features for Return of the King. They were discussing the mace that the nazgul uses on Eowyn. The effects team built the biggest, most ridiculous weapon they could, knowing that Jackson liked big things. He looked at it and said to make it 30% (or some other number, I don’t remember the details) bigger. They did and he wanted it still bigger. This went on several times until they had something that they thought would look completely cartoonish before he was happy.

I read an interview talking about The Hobbit and he applied the same kind of thinking to Smaug. He said the effects people kept showing him scales and drawings and he kept saying, bigger, bigger, until Smaug was so huge that he was actually scary (this worked in the case of Smaug).

All through the movie I kept thinking of those two things every time the new orc would show up and be even bigger than Azog was, or when Azog hit Gandalf with his enormous mace and all it did was knock him down, or when the black arrow was the size of a good one-handed spear… I felt like most of the action was fun for a few minutes but it always — every time — went on too long. The scenes were always just a little too much. If Smaug had left before Thorin and company entered Erebor it would have been better. It would even have been better if he had left when he told Bilbo he was leaving — even if it would have rendered everything the dwarves had done pointless to that point.

Final Thoughts:

I’ll probably think of some other things but for now that is my list. This movie feels like a much more modern epic fantasy than the one Tolkien told. Whether that is good or bad will depend on tastes I suspect. I felt like my general feeling after watching it is that it was a good movie. I enjoyed it and had fun watching. Many of the scenes were entertaining, the actors (outside of Orlando Bloom) were all excellent and I felt like the movie ended much quicker than I expected it to for it’s length (it didn’t feel like a three hour movie).

If I’m going to start comparing it to the book then I will have a lot more to say. The summary of which comes down to my feeling that Peter Jackson really doesn’t understand what Tolkien was about. The changes he has made both to the Hobbit and to LOTR show an utter lack of ability to grasp the morality and symbolism that is built into Tolkien’s writing. They may be more cinematic choices but they lose the power and message of the original. There ought to be and can be a better compromise — some of Jackson’s changes made the movies watchable and I applaud that — some of them fundamentally changed the cultural resonance that the story is based on, those are the ones that I despise. Tolkien’s original work is powerfully symbolic and resonates with western culture on so many levels that it has been the subject of countless (not really countless but a large number — it’s colloquialism) literary papers, theses and dissertations. To blithely change that speaks to a certain arrogance of choice that, on the face of it, is sort of appalling.

So. Leaving aside, as much as possible, my comparisons to the book, I think I enjoyed the movie. What are your thoughts?

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