Menu

user avatar

Review: THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

The short review: In spite of a few missteps, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a marked improvement over its predecessor in nearly every way, and a great reason to return to Middle Earth.

The long review: I saw The HobbitThe Desolation of Smaug in 3D in 24 FPS. Also, I was wearing a light jacket. Now that we have those pesky questions out of the way, let’s get into it, shall we?

Continuing where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey left off, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug finds Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), and a brigade of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), their rightful king, continuing their epic quest to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. Only one problem – it’s guarded by a ferocious dragon with a Scrooge McDuckian cache of coinage, the titular Smaug (voiced to a tee by Benedict Cumberbatch).

Wheras An Unexpected Journey got too bogged down in Middle Earth minutiae, there isn’t much narrative hand-holding in The Desolation of Smaug; save for one flashback of Gandalf and Thorin’s first encounter, the casual viewer is pretty much on his or her own during the quest for the Arkenstone (you know, the Durin family heirloom?), which might be a subtle way of putting the viewer in Bilbo’s headspace, but I doubt it. Nonetheless, the grand chase continues, and takes us from the house of were-bear Beorn to the halls of the Woodland Elves to Laketown and beyond, playing out in a series of increasingly over-the-top action set pieces.

Jackson has an “everything and the kitchen sink” mentality when it comes to storytelling, it seems. One of the oddest choices Jackson makes is relegating Bilbo largely to the background of the story, which wouldn’t really be such a big deal if he weren’t the titular character. Thorin Oakenshield, by and large, is our protagonist for the middle chapter of Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy, but when you spend more time discussing the finer points of local Laketown politics and the socioeconomic climate rather than developing your title character, eyebrows will be raised.

dos4

As a lifelong fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, I was profoundly disappointed with Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It felt like a pale imitation of what made The Lord of the Rings trilogy so special. Gone was the sense of action and adventure, gone were the fevered, pitched battles between sprawling armies, gone was the unique, charismatic cast of characters. Instead, we got a 12 minute song about dinner, a series of increasingly annoying supporting characters, a visual palette so muddy it didn’t much matter what they were doing, and a debate over frame rates that will make your eyes glaze over faster than the safety presentation at the beginning of a 12 hour flight.

Perhaps it’s an overabundance of CGI or maybe we’re just numb to imagination these days, but Middle Earth seems to have lost an awful lot of its magic. Sure, there’s still spells aplenty, necromancers on the loose, and more fantastical creatures than in several Monster Manuals, but by and large, the tactile sensation of being transported to Middle Earth is gone. With Lord of the Rings, I felt as though I could actually go to Middle Earth and explore it; with The Hobbit films – especially The Desolation of Smaug – I feel like I’m watching an E3 trailer for a video game I’d really like to play. Maybe something by Quantic Dream or Telltale where it’s really cinematic and I get to watch cool cutscenes, but I can still tell I’m within the confines of a videogame. 

Case in point, Jackson’s set pieces: While some of them had me pumping my fist in the air in delight, others were a bit overwrought and muddled, giving off more of the sense that I needed to press X to jump rather than feel emotionally invested in the scene. The barrel-riding sequence and the escape from Smaug’s lair both had some pretty thrilling moments, but they also felt interminable. The “finale” set piece in Smaug’s lair is particularly heinous, not because it doesn’t look cool, but because it’s a weird, overlong, forced bit of action that is meant to serve as a smokescreen to fool audiences into thinking that it’s a legitimate ending, which it isn’t. And if you don’t groan out loud at Bilbo’s final line, then I’ll eat my hat (which is made of chocolate).

dos2

Still, the barrel sequence, in which our dwarves make their escape from the halls of the Woodland Elves in wine barrels, has Jackson written all over it. But just having thirteen dwarves and one hobbit navigating treacherous rapids in oak-and-cabernet-aged barrels wasn’t enough for Peter Jackson. Like everything else in his version of Middle Earth, this chase sequence comes with 35% additional orcs (and no trans fats) and elves hunting them down, doing battle, and leaping across the heads of our heroes like fleshy stepping stones.

Instead of what should have been a quick cameo role, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) returns for a large, featured part, and boasts a whole new array of parkour ninja murdering skills that he must have forgotten in the decades between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Seeing him leap across the heads of our protagonist, then flip over the head of Dwarf #8 in order to shoot an arrow through the face of two orcs at once is objectively cool, but makes for a visually crowded experience. With Legolas (Orlando Bloom) parkour jump-shooting orcs in increasingly physics-and-good-sense-defying ways for the entirety of his screen time, it smacks of fan service in the worst way.

All of this, of course, renders Evangeline Lilly’s casting somewhat moot; her character Tauriel was created from whole cloth for this trilogy, and her love story with Kili feels just as manufactured. It isn’t to say that Lilly is unenjoyable; she isn’t. Rather, when you have her paired with the extremely overpowered Mary Sue that is Legolas, and force her into a slightly unbelievable love story for the sake of having a slightly unbelievable love story, you’re going to get diminishing returns. Hopefully, she’ll come into her own a bit more in the next film.

dos3

Some will write off The Hobbit Trilogy as the Millenial equivalent of the disappointing Star Wars prequels, to which my colleague Gerry Duggan replied, “How dare you.” I’m inclined to agree with Gerry on that regard; shitting on the Star Wars prequels is essentially the Godwin’s Law equivalent in the fanboy community, and while Jackson’s Hobbit films aren’t nearly as enjoyable as his Lord of the Rings cycle, it’s unnecessarily reductive and bombastic to draw such a comparison.

Does The Desolation of Smaug suffer from narrative overstuffing? Yes. Are some of the action sequences overlong and overdone? Yes. Does the film stand on its own as a complete work? Yes, in a weird fractured sort of way, but it works better as part of a whole. And, most importantly, is The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug a qualitatively fun film? Overwhelmingly yes. While it isn’t likely to win over new converts, it’s hard not to find yourself smiling during The Desolation of Smaug. Even when its at its absolute hammiest (e.g. Bilbo’s last line, Thorin surfing down a Capri Sun river of molten gold), it’s still a blast to watch and one that you won’t want to miss this holiday season.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is in theaters on Friday (December 13th).

What did you think of the film? Let us know in the comments below or tell me on Twitter.

Tags , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

31 comments

  • Dan, I agree with everything you said. When I first saw LOTR, I was thoroughly engrossed, memorizing the images of Middle Earth.
    Thirteen years later, I don’t need to see as much. We could have spent less time gazing at Laketown, Mirkwood, the Hall of the Mountain King. It wasn’t necessary and slowed down the narrative. Ditto with the set pieces – it needs a little (lot) editing, please, Peter! Pick the best five tricks for the barrel-riding sequence and let’s get on with the story. About the only place where I liked the long sequences was when Bilbo was in the treasure hall and you’d see coins cascading down with every twitch from Smaug.
    That said, my 12-year-old companion was enthralled, giving me a punch with each jump-scare. She was out of her seat for the ending, exclaiming ‘what a cliffhanger!’. When asked what her favorite parts were, she said the barrel-riding and the romance between Legolas and Tauriel (and Kili).
    So, PJ put a little something in there for everyone, even the fan girls.
    Or maybe just a little too much of everything? I think everyone got what they were looking for.

    Seen at an advance screening in 3D, 24 FPS

  • “gone were the fevered, pitched battles between sprawling armies, gone was the unique, charismatic cast of characters. ”

    Because there are no such things in the Hobbit book either. If you remembered correctly, all the fighting in the movie was added material. In the original novel dwarves fought only in the battle of five armies, except for Thorin who kills a few goblins in misty mountains. And also of the 13 dwarves, only Bombur, Fili/Kili, Balin and Thorin has some other characteristics than “dwarf.” I like how they have created interesting personas for each dwarf, instead of generic Gimli-clones.

    Point being, you shouldn’t compare Lord of the Rings and Hobbit together too much. They are so different in the theme and atmosphere in movie AND in the original novels that it is fool’s task. Hobbit IS cheerier, adventure about reclaiming old homeland from BBEG, when LOTR is epic quest of world-saving. They are too different to compare. Okay, Jackson made both movies but that doesn’t mean they should be identical.

    Ps. That singing scene made me almost cry of happines. It was very short and illustrous part of the movie that brought me right back to my childhood and first time of reading that scene. Don’t call it 12 minutes long.

  • *Ahem..*

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DvBE7Vt7Vg

    By and large, people seem to forget how cringeworthy LOTR was; that didn’t seem to be a problem at the time. Don’t take this as a criticism of your criticism, Dan, but more about other reviews I’ve read or audiences in general… but I like this quote a lot, from a book on Howard Hawks:

    “The apprehension and understanding of art that is fun and easy requires not special learning but special sensitivity to complicated essences that have been translated into perfectly elegant, graceful, brilliant surfaces, and special care not to be fooled by those simple surfaces into believing the art is simple.”

    I think most people lack that sensitivity to complicated essences. I can’t trust most reviews for that very reason; I feel like I have to develop a personal relationship with someone before I can trust their faculties for interpreting these sorts of things, and it’s never more apparent than with a film like this. Entertainment oversaturation has affected people to such an extent that a good critic is almost irrelevant to his or her audience, and can only rely on their own influence to affect others’ viewing experiences… not their actual insights.

    (I know one thing… the general “I don’t have time for this” strictness about what’s good and bad has made me sit on my own goddamn novel for a year already, paranoid about what somebody might say when I finally kickstart it. Not saying that’s rational, but it’s ever-present nonetheless.)

    Anyway, I guess I don’t see the standard for a good Tolkien film to be the same as that of another film. Frankly, I don’t *want* something that stands on its own. I want the minutiae, I want the cheeseball stuff, I want to linger in the places I’ve always read about. I loved An Unexpected Journey, and probably found myself welling up with the awe and sentimental warmth that I want from Tolkien more than I do during any of the Lord of the Rings films.

  • Well said, Dan. I think you hit the nail on the head here. I think these films are suffering mainly because of the overuse of CGI, and the bloat that comes with stretching a small book into three films.

    “Atte” posted earlier about not being able to compare LOTR to The Hobbit. Atte says The Hobbit was for children? Well I’d say, hey, the books were both written by the same author and take place within the same universe. It’s viable and justifiable to not only compare the books, but even moreso to compare the films. We have the same director and mostly the same creative team.

    What they should have done (since the filmmakers already deviated from the Hobbit book enough) is gone out of their way to make it feel like the same universe as the previous LOTR films. Give the movies the same serious feel punctuated by light heartedness. Sure, The Hobbit is more of an adventure and less of a “save the world quest”… but if you ask me, restoring a kingdom by killing a Dragon isn’t lighthearted business.

    The attempt by Peter Jackson thus far with his version of The Hobbit feels jaded and a bit off kilter. Despite the fact that you have McKellen and so many other actors playing their titular roles, it doesn’t feel like Middle Earth anymore to me. I simply don’t know what to chalk that up to… maybe Jackson’s lost his edge or there’s too many chiefs and not enough indians over at Weta. The new movies are simply lacking the charm and beauty that put Jackson and New Zealand on the map.

    All that aside, I am thrilled to see Christopher Lee back as Saruman the White, though he was missing from the 2nd installment… Now only if the characters would pronounce him name correctly instead of differently in every scene… Sara-muhn… Sah-do-mahn… Sah-ru-Man. Quit being lazy Sir Peter and get it together already!

  • That is true also. I just have heard and seen too much commentary back in Finland that are comparing LOTR with Hobbit without having ever reading the books. I loved all these movies, but I admit that I’m easy to please. My more critical friends would agree with you, but I’m just too happy to go Middle-Earth again. I have played MERP for years, and I have my own visuals of middle-earth and it’s folk AND they are not very close to the ones in the movies (In original trilogy, mostly Easterlings and Dunlendings are VERY different from original descriptions) but I keep open mind so I can enjoy great movies like the new Hobbit movies!

    In the Desolation of Smaug, I was annoyed only by the fact how small Beorn’s part was and how they kinda forgot the passing of time (in the book Dwarves are prisoned for weeks, and How the heck gandalf got to Rhudaur so fast?) but all else; Pure gold.

  • Ps. Overuse of CGI is a bad thing in the film industry these days, more personaly because I’m aiming to modelmaking career, film industry doesn’t need large-scale models as much they needed them in years past…

  • “What they should have done (since the filmmakers already deviated from the Hobbit book enough) is gone out of their way to make it feel like the same universe as the previous LOTR films. Give the movies the same serious feel punctuated by light heartedness. ”

    Seriously? I don’t see how they haven’t done that. That’s exactly what it feels like to me. If they hadn’t deviated from the book, then it REALLY would have felt different. The idea that Tolkien wrote them both so they’re automatically similar is flawed in this case; the Hobbit is a very different thing, from a time before Tolkien realized that there was a deeper lore to be developed for Middle-Earth.

    But they seem to be coming from exactly the same place. How specifically to do what you’re asking–that is, to make them seem more similar–I have NO idea. Have you forgotten that maybe YOU are in a different place than you were when LOTR films were coming out?

    Also, I think there are more practical effects than you guys are realizing. The way it was shot gives it a sheen to make everything blend together better, and now everybody assumes it’s all digital. All the orc/goblin bodies and many of the heads were real; Azog only wasn’t because the character was changed somewhat in post-production. Anyway, there’s no more or less virtue in digital vs. practical; if the digital effects are good (and they are), criticizing them for their own sake is just luddite silliness.

  • OK, I’m sorry, but hold on a minute. Rewatching the first movie…

    The dinner song was LESS THAN A MINUTE LONG, Dan Casey. Under 60 seconds of less-than-desirable footage?! Oh, SO excruciating!

    You’re a turd. Everybody is a turd. Nobody likes anything anymore. GAH FUCK EVERYTHING I’M DISCONNECTING MY INTERNET.

  • Get out of the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat, RG.
    ;)

    No but seriously… You’re right, we’re all in different places in our lives than when we saw LOTR. But I’m also a continual fan of the material. Tolkien’s world has never lost its luster (for me)… and I love what Jackson did with the first trilogy. This time around though, it feels half-hearted and lethargic as opposed to sweeping and epic. The machinery of the movie making is taking precedence over the art. I think that’s the core problem here, which is a shame. I think people are going to “forget” about these films more easily after they’ve left the theatres.

  • I’m going to see this in theaters even though I was disappointed by a lot of An Unexpected Journey. The Tolkien minutiae was actually my favorite part.

    I hate hate hate that they’ve added this ridiculous plot line with the White Orc. The book had enough going on to be successfully adapted into a movie without it. I can already tell the barrel-riding scene and Legolas’ fighting sequences are going to bug me.

    Also, they went out of their way to make three movies and the scene at Beorn’s house is still truncated? Sigh.

  • MLD: I just don’t get that at all. I’ve found them to be, by and large, even more vibrant and outstanding than LOTR. I honestly feel that something else has tainted perception of these films.

  • Hey RG – it’s weird. I want to like them, and I pay my hard earned cash to go see them in the theatres. But something is wrong. I can’t put my finger on it any more than you can’t understand why I don’t agree with you. ;-)

    I’m a fan of the material since I was a teen -reading Tolkien constantly. I love The Silmarillion especially. I didn’t pick apart LOTR when they were released for the lack of Bombadil and things like that, I enjoyed them for what they were – someone’s vision of Tolkien’s world. Something about this new trilogy doesn’t work for me, though. I feel like how the original 3 Star Wars were enjoyable at the last trilogy was painful to watch – that sort of thing. Okay, so it’s not *that* bad… I did enjoy some moments from Unexpected Journey. Namely the White Council, though the bit about the Witch King’s tomb irked me ;)

    It seems maybe the more I talk about it that there’s less heart here with these new films… and if Jackson was going to deviate from the source so much (which he has), then maybe he could’ve found more of a center to the film so that people don’t forget about it after they’ve watched it. It shouldn’t JUST be eye candy, you know?

    Hmm… food for thought my friend. ;)

  • […] With The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in theaters now and Benedict Cumberbatch making waves for his sultry verbal interpretation of the poetry of R. Kelly, it was only a matter of time until the cast of the The Hobbit would try to get in on the fun. Well, today IGN delivered with a video of them performing a dramatic reading of Leonard Nimoy’s classic song, “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” You remember the words, right? […]

  • Hmm, yeah, once again I just don’t see it. It’s another instance where I actually see the opposite (I think more of the heart shows through, perhaps because Peter Jackson is a bit more accustomed to the whole process and can communicate more fluidly).

    I wouldn’t question the perspective, if it weren’t for one thing: of all my personal friends who have enjoyed the movies (almost all of them), we cannot possibly see what it is about them that people don’t like. I’ve talked about this with multiple people, that it just seems crazy not to like them if you liked LOTR (the only exception being people who make up their minds that it’s bad simply because it deviates slightly from the book, which is critically irrelevant when talking about how to make a good film adaptation).

    In all honest, fair discussions (like this one is turning out to be), I pride myself on being a very objective person; though my personal philosophy is to eschew criticism and to love what I love and ignore what I hate, that doesn’t involve denying reality… it simply means starting out positive, acknowledging any failures that occur in spite of that, but moving on more easily than many rabid fanboys do. But in this case, LITERALLY nobody has been able to give me a solid reason why they think it’s bad. They just SAY “this was bad” or admit that they can’t put their finger on it. That’s why I think it has more to do with personal circumstances than its actual quality as a film relative to LOTR. It’s something about the ways different individuals process this big, formless essence. Like Dan’s comment about Bilbo’s last line being cringeworthy; I don’t remotely understand that. I don’t get it AT ALL. It’s a minor cliche, at worst. Same with the molten river scene. All these things just strike me as grasping at straws to describe a conflict that can’t be put into words.

  • Hey RG – I disagree with Bilbo’s last line being cheesy. It worked perfectly for the moment, and his delivery seemed genuine for the moment.

    I will be positive at this point… the highlight of the film for me was seeing Gandalf confront The Necromancer. That gave me chills on my arms.

    The rest was, as I said, eye candy. I feel the story is suffering from being stretched too thin. Like butter, scraped over too much bread. (laughing) ;)

  • Yeah, the effects in that scene blew me away… that’s
    THE way to use digital. Not shiny and sleek, but stark and monochromatic with an almost brush-stroked texture to them.

    But anyway, I just don’t see how any of it could have been shorter. I get that perhaps it feels overdramatized compared to the book, but that’s simply an earnest effort to make the tone match that of LOTR. I like seeing stuff from the appendices, and that’s the only thing really “added.”

    It just seems odd to me that people can watch, say, Game of Thrones play out over years with cliffhangers galore and love every minute of it, but suddenly a movie is split into three parts, giving itself a mere fraction of that same sort of breathing room, and people somehow leave the theater feeling unfulfilled. Personally, I don’t believe in the boundaries that separate the medium of TV from that of film; networks and studios impose that length boundary, not me. Good storytelling isn’t dependent on running time. Tolkien is all about breathing room and minutiae. And as for “eye candy,” I don’t know what you could mean except the supremely entertaining set pieces.That’s entertainment, showmanship, something to remind you that it’s movie magic. What’s wrong with that? I love story immersion, but to shun that showmanship seems cynical, and that creates a huge contradiction: to go in with that cynicism but to simultaneously demand immersion is impossible; preconceived cynicism prohibits immersion more than any choreographed fight scene.

    Maybe people are reacting to the fact that these don’t take themselves quite as seriously at the LOTR films, but somewhat more seriously than the original Hobbit story… but again, I think that’s just an earnest attempt at balance. And naturally, not the viewers haven’t made the proper investment with their own imaginations (and there IS an investment to be made with escapist fantasy like this; sitting with one’s arms crossed waiting to be entertained is a self-fulfilling negativity), and now the Tolkien purists AND the Peter Jackson fans are up in arms because it’s not ALL one thing or the other. But I’m both… so I love it.

  • The scenes w/ Bilbo & Smaug really disappointed…All of a sudden, Smaug is all seeing and all knowing? HE KNEW EVERYTHING! Would’ve been nice to see Bilbo taunt him using the ring instead of standing right in front of him the whole time.

  • “little spoiler” anyone have notice this thing?
    when bombur fight inside his barrel and destoyed it, he jump into the water inside another barrel… i can’ t understand why there is an empty barrel in the river… can you explain me

  • Poor, very poor CGI, (Except for the dragon, I think it was ok) There were some shots that you could clearly see they used a green or blue screen, poor CGI physics (which is way more important than the actual CGI; take Gollum, it wasn’t that bad, but their movements where so real, people didn’t care much at all about their lookings. The only place where it looked fake I think it was in the extended Two Towers scene when Faramir almost choke him.

    Pretty lame story, script and characters. (Including the affair and Legolas kicking bad instead of the dwarfs) I think Bilbo’s acting was very nice, although it was way too short.

    I thought it was going to be better. Not like LOTR, but we got Narnia style instead. The first one was better IMO. Even a decent soundtrack and camera movements-shots were missed here.

    *Almost forgot: You could see some scenes were they changed to a different quality camera, this is specially true in the barrel sequence.

  • I actually thought The Unexpected Journey was much better than Desolation. This film deviated much more from the book (at least in ways that didn’t make sense). I agree that the CGI is taking the magic out of these films for me. I recently rewatched all of the LOTR movies and they just feel so real. I don’t understand why Jackson changed his method for the Hobbit movies. Desolation also seemed rushed to me, which is weird since one short book is being stretched into three long movies. The parts at Beorn’s house and Thranduil’s kingdom were shortened and the part in Laketown was lengthened – what’s that about?

    One more thing: Tauriel is not a good character. I understand that Jackson wanted to bring some ladies into the mix, but he did so in a stereotypical way. He says he created this awesome female warrior and that may be part of her character, but the awkward love triangle that he creates overwhelms that aspect of her personality. Why can’t there be a female who just kicks ass and isn’t pining after some man? The love triangle was ridiculous and completely unnecessary.

  • I saw the movie yesterday and was so disappointed that I started to look for online reviews to gripe about it with others. The whole movie was one big fighting sequence with too way many orchs in it. There were no songs, no humor, no warmth. There were only some truly disgusting looking spiders and a dracon, who might just as well have been the local janitor instead of Benedict Cumberbatch, since his voice had been altered digitally too much.

    What I just can’t forgive Peter Jackson is that he hasn’t just added the fighting scenes like he did in the LOTR, he’s also removed significant parts of the actual plot to make even more room for them. Beorn and Mirkwood were real disappointments in that aspect. I was really looking forward to seeing Beorn’s home as one peacefull place for the dwarves to rest before the grande finale, but I blinked and it was already over.

    I will probably go and see the final part of this mess out of morbid curiosity, but in my honest opinion Peter Jackson has ruined the whole story. This is not the Hobbit, this is another, way bloodier story with almost the same characters but not quite.

    Yes, and the Unexpected Journey was both visually and plotwise a far superior movie, and we can’t even talk about the LOTR on the same day. This movie made me wonder whether they were really even filming it in real locations across the world, it looks like they did it in an empty studio with lots of special effects added later.

  • Agree 100% with Marjorie – well said – this is NOT Tolkien (he is probably rolling over in his grave…) – would a film maker rewrite Dickens? How many versions are there of “A Christmas Carol’ and none have strayed from the original dialog – had I Jackson’s ear, all I could say was ‘how dare you’ – he basically re-wrote most of the book – a classic in it’s own right – and all for gratuitous violence and endless, ridiculous elven gymnastics and eventual money grubbing – ENOUGH already – tell the story and get on with it! tedious film…..

  • One of the worst movies I have ever had the patience to sit through: self indulgent, under edited and way too serious. S
    Did I mention seriously lacking in fin and full of nauseatingly edited, but repetitive action sequences?