Monthly Archives: April 2014

Film Review: The Desolation of Smaug

Warning: Spoilers, including spoilers for parts of The Hobbit that will be covered in the third film.

I’ve been away so long you’d probably thought I’d done a Bilbo, and gone off to foreign parts in search of adventure. But no, I’m back, and I’m here with a review for the second Hobbit film: The … [drumroll] … Desolation of Smaug. Just the other day I saw this second instalment in the film trilogy that has held geeks and non-geeks alike in eager anticipation, and I’m keen to express my conflicting thoughts on it with you.

To begin with, I want to say what I said last time: the Set. Was. Awesome. Well, maybe not quite as incredible as the set for An Unexpected Journey — Mirkwood, for one, could have been a little better — but most things were really, really good. There was Erebor, again, of course (though now after decades of dragon habitation), and Laketown was terrific. Best of all was probably King Thranduil’s halls, and it was perhaps a pity we didn’t see more of it. And of course there was the entire landscape, which was surely enough to make anyone want to move to Middle-Earth… or New Zealand.

Going on to the storyline, and pacing, I can’t say I was quite as impressed. It seemed like they tilted the whole film forwards, rushing through the early parts and spending too much time (and inventing too much) in the later stages.

For a start, there was Beorn. I would have liked to see more of him than one brief scene. I suppose, in the novel, the time with Beorn was a bit of a lull in the tension which Jackson probably wanted to avoid, but perhaps we could have had a just little more? Also, though Beorn was terrific as a bear, as a man he was not really how I imagined him. The hair was good, but character-wise I thought he would be more impetuous, more volatile, more hearty. In the one scene where we see him, we see only his grave and gloomy side.

I could easily pass over Beorn not meeting my expectations, but I confess I was disappointed with the whole section in Mirkwood. “Flies and Spiders”, and the whole of the events in Mirkwood is one of my favourite parts of The Hobbit. It is one of the most crucial parts of the novel in terms of Bilbo’s character development, and the prolonged dark, depressive atmosphere is really one of the low-points of the novel for the company, especially with the unexpected absence of Gandalf.

In the film, I felt the whole thing was rushed through so that we could get to more “exciting” action sequences with the roped-in Legolas and Tauriel. It seemed like we were in the forest for barely any time at all (and we skipped the moths with bulbous eyes and the whole affair with the black river and the enchanted Bombur) before Bilbo went up the tree for a look around, and then came down for a short, shallow tussle with the spiders before the elves popped along and whisked the dwarves away. Peter Jackson evidently decides film noir is not what he wants for The Desolation of Smaug, and Bilbo’s character development is set aside for another time and place.

Admittedly, in the film series much of Bilbo’s character development has already happened by this stage, what with him saving Thorin’s life at the end of The Unexpected Journey. And I suppose the scene with the spiders might not have been as impressive in a film as in the book, given that everything would be dark and hard-to-see — and Bilbo would be invisible anyway. I’m still disappointed, but I’ll keep these things in mind so that I don’t end up with an unfairly negative view of the film.

Once we get through Mirkwood, the movie-makers seem suddenly to remember they still have about five hours of film to fill and less than 150 pages of the novel to fill it with, so they start pulling in characters, fight-scenes and turkey-stuffing faster than you can say “Bilbo”. They probably thought they could sell a few more movie-tickets by satiating Orlando Bloom fans, as well as appeasing critics of Tolkien’s all-male cast, so they bring in Legolas and a red-headed girlfriend. They even seem to try and get in something of a love-triangle between Tauriel, Legolas and the “hot dwarf”, Kili.

I’m not sure what to think of these character additions. On the one hand, it is entirely plausible that Legolas should have encountered the dwarves, and Tolkien certainly did lay it a bit thin with the female half of the population in his novel. The fight scene with Legolas playing stepping-stones on the dwarves’ heads was just incredible, and I could mostly forgive the over-the-top nature of it because, after all, he’s an elf. On the other hand, the whole thing with Kili getting injured and staying behind, and then having Tauriel turn up to cure him, was going a bit far. There’s a fine line between balancing a gender-imbalanced cast and completely changing the story to invent love-interest.

What about Laketown? For starters, I thought the introduction of Bard was good. I was pleased with how we get a feel for the man before the big events of the next film, and especially good was the short debate between Bard and the Master. We see Bard for a man of integrity, who will help the dwarves where his conscience allows, but who feels the need to warn the people against their greed — while the Master, who really dislikes the dwarves, helps them for the sake of his popularity.

While there was some good stuff in Laketown, though, I would have liked to see a bit more of the mass joy and frenzy over the dwarves return and the expected fulfilment of the prophecy, and a bit less of Orcs creeping over roof-tops. There was some pretty funny stuff in the book with all the people hero-worshipping the dwarves and the Master grudgingly going along with it while thinking of all the costs to business and wanting to get rid of them as quickly as possible. I suppose that wouldn’t really have fit the film, though, because there was a lot of emphasis on hurrying to the mountain to get there by Durin’s Day. The film’s increased temporal pressure meant the loss of a funny scene or two, but I’ll own the resulting increase in tension was certainly a good thing.

Then there was the dragon. That scene started off well. Smaug was one magnificent piece of CGI, and the dialogue between him and Bilbo was done well. (Bilbo was visible, which irked me at first, but the most annoying thing about invisible people is you can’t see them, which doesn’t work quite so well in a film). After the initial bit, though, things went a bit downhill. All the dwarves piled down, and there was a rather pointless scene where I think they were trying to fight the dragon, with a lot of creative ingenuity, but with pretty pathetic results. It was all a bit preposterous, though, and it did seem to devalue the danger of dragon fire. I mean, isn’t this supposed to be fire hot enough to melt the One Ring itself? But here the dwarves and Bilbo are practically playing in fire and hardly so much as singeing their eyebrows, so far as I could tell.

Rewinding a bit, I think a really good part of the film was the removal of Deus ex Machina’s from the book. Tolkien is a brilliant writer, but he did have a tendency, particularly in The Hobbit, to drop miraculous escape-opportunities sometimes literally out of the sky. For example, earlier in the story, he has thirteen dwarves, a hobbit and a wizard up in five fir trees, looking set to become fifteen kebabs for a pack of hungry Wargs and goblins, when, out of the blue, swoop a bunch of giant eagles to save the day. The film-makers partially atone for this blatant copout by having Gandalf whisper to a little moth beforehand, which sort of gives us the idea he had called for the eagles.

The removal of Deus ex Machina, and the general foreshadowing of plot-twists, continues strongly in The Desolation of Smaug. The most critical point is the foreshadowing of the dragon’s bane. In the book, the passing of Smaug is a bit of an anti-climax. It’s not foreshadowed, it doesn’t happen by hand of Bilbo, or Thorin, or even Gandalf — it’s killed by Bard, an almost complete nobody in terms of the story at that point, who is only even said to be a descendent of the Lord of Dale (as far as I remember) immediately before he kills the dragon.

In the film, the thing is done a whole lot better. Early on we see something of Bard’s character. We learn about his ancestry. We hear about Girion’s attempt to slay the dragon, which only just failed. And then we learn that there is one more black arrow remaining. Just one more.

And it’s not just in the slaying of the dragon where Jackson and the screenwriters set things up better than Tolkien did. For one thing, there’s the whole affair with Thorin being pursued by Azog’s horde of Orcs. Personally, I think this subplot got a little too intense, especially in the first film, but a really big plus of the whole thing (besides its virtue in maintaining some tension through nearly 9 hours of film), is that it foreshadows the Battle of Five Armies. In The Hobbit, the Battle of Five Armies was a shock to everyone. It was a shock to Bilbo. It was a shock to Gandalf. It was a shock to the reader. In the film, I imagine it will still a shock to everyone (except those who have read the book), but we won’t complain that they cheated by bringing it totally out of the blue.

One last episode where I think they made really good use of detail in the film, was Durin’s Day. Durin’s Day is “when the last moon of autumn and the first moon of winter are in the sky together”. A rare occasion, not something to miss.

In the book they nearly missed it. They were sitting there on the doorstep, looking desperately for the keyhole, and then the sun went behind the cloud. They thought they were done for, but then it emerged from the cloud, just long enough to fit the key and enter the mountain.

In the film, they went one better. The sun set, the stars came out, the moon came down to set as well. All was lost, for certain. But hang on a minute, the … moon? The thrush knocks and the moonbeam falls on the keyhole. Bilbo calls for the dwarves, Thorin grabs the key as the hobbit nearly kicks into the valley, he fits to the keyhole.

Okay, maybe we don’t need the blow-by-blow recap, but you get the point. They made the film that much more powerful by fully utilising details that we’d been provided with earlier. They kept the subtle, implicit promise they made in the previous film: the promise that the detail of the moon was important.

I’ve said some good things about this film so far, but I’ve also made a lot of criticisms. I’ve criticised the scene with Beorn, and the whole episode in Mirkwood, and the lack of development in Laketown. I’ve criticised the scene with the dwarves “fighting” the dragon and the excessive intensity of the orc-fight scenes. What is it that I really want? Am I just being pedantic, criticising everything because it gives me a perverse pleasure?

Answering the second question first — yes, I think I mainly am just being pedantic. The Desolation of Smaug is a brilliant film, just as An Unexpected Journey was. But I do have a reason for my criticisms, I do have something that I want — or that I think I want — out of the Hobbit film series. The problem is that Jackson’s focus in his film series is different to what mine would have been.

If I had directed The Hobbit films (which, believe me, you wouldn’t want), then my emphasis would have been on humour and character development. I’m not saying I would know how to write the humour, I’m not saying I would know how to write the character development, I’m not saying I would know anything at all about directing a movie, but those are my two primary ideals — humour and character development.

Humour means more stuff like where Bilbo wants everyone to turn back for him to get his handkerchief, and where Gandalf goes off to seek the company of “the only one around here who has any sense”. True, there might not be as much scope for that in the relatively grim setting of The Desolation of Smaug as in the first film, but they probably could have got a bit more in than they did.

Character development in this film means, primarily, more stuff in Mirkwood. Less of the intense action, more bits where the little guy finds he has to act all alone.

I’m not saying Jackson didn’t manage any humour or character development — he managed both, in some places quite well. What I’m saying is that that’s where the emphasis should have been. Rather than trying to beat the Lord of the Rings at its own game, trying to be the biggest, most epic high fantasy film on the block, The Hobbit should have been gentler, funnier and every bit as touching (in a very not-soppy sort of way).

That’s not to say they shouldn’t have tried to set up for The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson had an advantage here that Tolkien didn’t have: he knew exactly what the sequel was. I have little doubt Tolkien would have written The Hobbit quite differently if he wrote it in the 1950s, rather than in the 1930s, due to a progression in his ideas about Middle Earth history. Making use of a wealth of material Tolkien didn’t have when he wrote The Hobbit, Jackson has been able to create a film that ties into the sequel much better than the book does. But he should not forget that though the events of this tale, as Middle Earth fate would have it, have big implications, the events themselves are not nearly so large-scale.

In the end, it was a great film. The set was brilliant, they did a great job of removing Deus ex Machina’s and of making use of every detail. The emphasis wasn’t so much on humour and character development as I would have like it to be, but having chosen to make The Hobbit trilogy BIG, like it’s sequel predecessor, they certainly aren’t failing (and their managing to fit some humour and character development in as well). In addition, they’ve managed to avoid having any really painfully over-the-top scenes in this film, such as the stone-giants in the last film. Really, I can’t blame Jackson too much at all — but I’m still annoyed about Mirkwood. Rating 4/5.

Note: My ratings are probably a little more stingy than they used to be. This was at least as good as An Unexpected Journey.