In for a penny, in for a pound.
That’s kind of how I feel about The Hobbit movies at this point; once I invested three hours in the first movie, I have to see this thing all the way through. I was admittedly not a huge fan of the first film – an opinion that only intensified after almost a year of reflection – and I had to psych myself up a bit to go see The Desolation of Smaug. The thought of making another 2.5+ hour deposit to watch a bunch of people walk around was not necessarily something that I was especially looking forward to. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy parts of the original film, but I was ready for something to actually happen.
The good news is that The Desolation of Smaug is a definite improvement over the first film; there is a lot less wandering around and dwarves singing and more action and actual plot. There are scenes in this film that are downright thrilling and you really can’t go wrong when you add a dragon to the equation, let alone a dragon that is voiced by the great Benedict Cumberbatch. So there are definitely a lot of positives. Unfortunately, though, the film is still plagued by pacing problems and juggling too many subplots. After almost six hours, this all feels like preamble to the actual story. A lot of chess pieces were moved around, but in the grand scheme of things I felt like we didn’t really go anywhere.
I was a little concerned that I hadn’t done a refresher course on The Hobbit before going in to see The Desolation of Smaug, but that wound up being an erroneous concern. There was an awful lot of filler in the first film and by remembering the broad strokes I was in fine shape for the second; I daresay that you could probably jump right into the second film without having seen the first and you wouldn’t be all that lost. That’s a testament to how little of importance actually happens in these films. Our band of dwarves, the eponymous Hobbit and a wizard thrown in for extra measure are still on the run from Orcs en route to the Lonely Mountain. Their escape beings them in contact with elves, the titular Smaug and even honest to goodness humans, who I forgot even existed in this universe.
While the first film relied on director Peter Jackson mining the footnotes of The Hobbit to pad the story, for the second installment he is deviating from the Tolkien blueprint a bit by either creating totally new characters or pilfering characters from the author’s other books and planting them in this story. I have no problem with this – artistic license and all – but I’ll be curious how these decisions sit with the Tolkien purists. It seems like a necessary move to me if you insist on making a 300 page book into an approximately 9 hour movie; there just isn’t enough source material in the basic The Hobbit story to fill all that screen time. I mean think about it – it would take less time to read the book that it will to watch the entire The Hobbit movie.
From my view, these alterations contribute to making The Desolation of Smaug a better installment than the original The Hobbit film; both Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reviving his character from The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and new creation Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) help bring some much needed action to the franchise that previously relied too much on walking and talking. Bloom could probably do this role in his sleep by now, but he smartly gives Legolas a bit of naiveté in this film; since the events of this film take place well before the events of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it makes sense that his character wouldn’t be exactly the same. He hasn’t had the same experiences yet. Lilly kicks some serious butt in this movie and instantly became one of my favorite things about the film – a surprising development since I definitely was not a big fan of her character Kate on Lost (or her portrayal of said character). Despite her somewhat limited screen time, Tauriel quickly becomes one of the most developed characters of the movies; I can still barely tell the dwarves apart at this point, but she has a clear point of view and is far more well-rounded than most of the other characters we encounter in the film. I don’t know if Jackson put more thought into Tauriel because she was a new creation, so he was starting from scratch, but she is a welcome addition to the club. I also enjoyed the addition of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and look forward to more of him in the final film.
Both Legolas and Tauriel are part of the most exciting sequence in the film – the barrel escape. This was a spectacular bit of film making and was one of the most fun action scenes that I’ve seen in a while. It was shot and choreographed beautifully; there was so much going on in, but it was gorgeous chaos. It was filled with crazy stunts and was the fastest paced part of the films to date, but it was also funny. The barrel escape was easily the moment of the film that most enraptured the audience – while my fellow movie goers were pretty quiet during the rest of the film, you could feel people moving to the edge of their seats and reacting to what was unfolding in front of them. That scene alone is worth the price of admission. Just artfully executed and a much needed shot of adrenaline.
Smaug the dragon was also a pretty impressive creation and I quite enjoyed the early interplay between Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins (Sherlock in the house!). The cat and mouse game that they play was initially pretty suspenseful and I’m always ready to listen to Cumberbatch’s distinctive voice. The scenes inside Lonely Mountain were also visually pretty stunning – though I didn’t see the film in 3-D, I can imagine those that did having a sense of being completely swimming in gold and treasures.
However, while I initially was entertained by Smaug v. Hobbit, this section was plagued by the same problem that I’ve had with a lot of the films to date – it simply went on way too long. When you have a dragon in the film – hell, the dragon’s name is IN THE TITLE – you are ready for that dragon to be unleashed. But Jackson seems to subscribe to the “tell, not show” school of filmmaking, so instead we get a lot of chit chat. It just goes on a beat or two too long and the suspense that they have been quietly building up begins to deflate. Seriously – that Smaug is quite the chatty Cathy. When Smaug is finally allowed to spread his wings and throw some fire it is awesome, but just when things are getting exciting the film ends. I’m not saying you have to go all in when there is another movie to be made, but after all that buildup it just didn’t feel all that satisfying.
While the first hour or so of the film flies by and moves at a much quicker pace than The Hobbit, the film then screeches to a halt. There is a definite inconsistency to how this story is told – there is no second gear. The film either moves at a snail’s pace or it kicks into turbo. The poor pacing resulted in this movie once again feeling a lot longer than its actual run time and I’ll admit that I was bored on more than one occasion. Had I not been in a room full of people, I could have possibly fallen asleep.
Gandalf also disappears for most of the movie and is off on his own little side mission. I haven’t read The Hobbit and I’m sure that is part of the original story, but everything involving him in the movie felt disjointed and separate from the rest of what was going on. I actually forgot all about him for long stretches of time, until the film would cut away from the momentum it was building to check in on everyone’s favorite wizard. I’m assuming that his story will converge more with the main action in the third film, but it really just didn’t fit in with the rest of the narrative as executed in The Desolation of Smaug. It was actually more of a distraction. And what kind of wizard gets a bunch of dwarves psyched up for this journey and then bails on them when they could most use him. That’s poor form, Gandalf.
Some other thoughts:
- The fact that this is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy does lessen the stakes some; with so many characters that are also in the later movies, I know that they are in no real danger. Legolas might get into some trouble, but I know he’s alive and well in The Lord of the Rings.
- No Gollum in this one. Bummer – I like that dude.
- The Desolation of Smaug features the potential of an interspecies love story, something that I admit I never contemplated before. Apparently this is frowned upon.
- You know, we’re almost six hours in to this story and I’m not convinced that Thorin (Richard Armitage) would actually make a good Dwarf King. He seems like kind of a jerk. That’s kind of a problem, since that’s the whole point of this quest.
- From what I’ve read, fans of the book were really looking forward to the scene depicting the skin changer. While that is in the movie, I think they will be disappointed – it wasn’t all that exciting and it was incredibly brief.
- If you suffer from arachnophobia, you are not going to like one section of the movie. At all.
- From the audience reaction when this film ended, I don’t know that everyone knew that there was going to be a third movie. There was an audible groan and grumbling as we filed out of the theater.
- Wired breaks down the physics of the barrel scene.
- I’ll be honest – the Dwarves’ plan to deal with Smaug seemed fairly convoluted. I had no idea what they were trying to do for a lot of the sequence and I was pretty sure that what they hatched (when I finally put it together) wasn’t going to work.
- Hey – that’s Stephen Fry as the Mayor of Laketown!
- We are now on year two of The Year of the Archer. Who knew bows and arrows would make such a comeback?
My problems with the Desolation of Smaug are mostly the same issues that I had with The Hobbit: I simply cannot buy into the central conceit that this book had to be three long films. I’ll stick it out, but I think that 99% of the problems with these movies could have been rectified by not drawing them out. There is just too much filler and the films go down too many seemingly unconnected side alleys that the central narrative is weakened by these diversions. While the pace of the second film is much quicker than the first in parts, it is still too inconsistent and drags too often. Perhaps this will all come together in the third film, but at this point this all seems like a lot of foreplay without much payoff. I left The Desolation of Smaug feeling like a lot of what I watched didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. While there were parts that I did really enjoy – the addition of the new characters in particular – I still can’t say that I am fully on board with these films. They are always well acted and beautifully filmed, yet the story and pacing deter from the ultimate success of the project. I’ll reserve judgment until I see this story in its entirety, but while The Desolation of Smaug is an improvement over The Hobbit there is still a lot of room for improvement. The pressure is now on Jackson for the final film to prove that this massive time commitment was worth it.