Joel and Louise do The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Hobbit poster“Well, thief! I smell you, I hear your breath, I feel your air. Where are you?”

The Scoop:  2013, PG-13, directed by Peter Jackson, starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

Tagline:  Beyond darkness… beyond desolation… lies the greatest danger of all.

Summary Capsule:  The hobbit Bilbo Baggins accompanies Gandalf the Grey and a party of dwarves on a great adventure to reclaim their home from its current resident, a giant dragon.

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Joel’s Rating:  4.5 out of 5 Arkenstones

Joel’s Review: (Joel does The Hobbit?  EWWWWWW!)

Synopsis:  (SPOILERS) The Desolation of Smaug is the 2nd part of The Hobbit trilogy, following the events of An Unexpected Journey where we follow Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage)from the cliffs of the giant eagles to the Lonely Mountain, former home of the dwarves that is now the lair of Smaug the dragon.  Wizard Gandalf the Grey (played by Magneto, I mean Ian McKellen) leaves the company early on as there is trouble elsewhere and he must confront an old evil.  Without Gandalf, the adventurers face all manner of creatures, some friendly and many not, as they travel through the Mirkwood, the kingdom of the wood elves, the human community Laketown, and finally the dwarves’ ancient home, and for much of this journey they are followed and harassed by ugly orcs with a blood vendetta against Thorin.  When the travelers finally arrive at the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo himself must perform the task he was hired for, stealing back dwarven treasure from the original thief, the gigantic dragon.

Note:  being one of the most read and popular fantasy books ever, I’m not really too worried about Spoilers here, so read with caution if you have never read the book or do not want too many details.

My biggest complaint is about Peter Jackson’s ‘hobbits’ as characters themselves.  I mean, anyone who knows anything about fantasy can see that a ‘hobbit’ is merely another name for Halflings, a character race described almost exactly the same way in the Dungeons and Dragons game waaaaaay back in the 1970’s.  So many fantasy films have their version of halflings, whether it is Henson’s The Dark Crystal or Ron Howards Willow, but an old-school nerd like me knows the originator of the character type was good ol’ Gary Gygax! In the game, Halflings made great burglars, too!  What a rip-off.

Seriously though, understand that I, like many of my fantasy and sci-fi nerdy brethren in the world, read The Hobbit novel at a young age along with the rest of the Lord of the Rings books.  Most of us also watched the old Rankin and Bass animated version of The Hobbit (sing it with me now…’The greatest adventure is what lies ahead, today and tomorrow are yet to be said.’) and Return of the King (‘Where there’s a whip, there’s a way’, heh heh heh!).  Some of us even watched Ralph Bakshi’s attempt at the Lord of the Rings animated feature film with varying levels of appreciation.  I honestly didn’t think the series  could really be done live action and dreaded the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films, but of course I was there opening weekend for the first one and not believing how much I loved it!  I will write this review as fairly as I can, but I am a fan of both the franchise and of Peter Jackson’s work, so I’m a little biased.

I also do not judge a work based on what has gone on before, I like to judge the movies I watch on their own merits, so no points off for changing the book, as far as I’m concerned.

First up, and I’m sure everyone out there will be surprised, but the special effects are just gorgeous!  Whatever it is you are looking at, it is done well; only once in a while did a scene look CGI’d (for me, it was often during the fights with the orcs).  And while there is a lot of computer animation in the movie, I still appreciate the location shooting in New Zealand for a great many scenes.  Instead of green screened backgrounds, we have a lot of scenes where the CGI is added to a real and spectacular shot of wilderness.  Like Lord of the Rings, many of the shots of the journey itself are simply the characters walking through breathtaking, real life scenery.  Not many movies take my breath away anymore, but I truly love the sweeping landscapes that Peter Jackson likes to shoot.   The action is pretty nice overall as well. We have none of the huge battles that dominated the last two parts of LOTR (I know, I know, that is coming, but it is nice to have only one of them), but there are plenty of smaller altercations to keep the adventurers busy and Gandalf facing the Necromancer and his minions is exceptionally well done, I thought.

As far as characters, when you have so many of them running around, some will get more character and screen time than others.  Bilbo, Gandalf, and Thorin are the big three of this trilogy, but we do get a little focus on a few of the other dwarves as well as the addition of Legolas (Orlando Bloom, also in the LOTR trilogy) and original character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), I assume added since the original book literally has no major female character.  My thoughts, they should have added a couple of dwarven women just to see what they would do with their facial hair!  Balin (Ken Scott), as I believe the oldest dwarf of the group, gets some good lines while Kili (Aidan Turner) gets his own original subplot for his efforts.  I am really not sure of the need for Kili and his romantic side-quest, but it is handled fairly well and even the motivation for both characters involved is believable, as opposed to just happening because the script requires it.   And we can’t mention the characters without mentioning Smaug the dragon, voiced by Khan Noonian Singh 2.0 (aka Benedict Cumberbatch).  The dragon sounds huge and ominous, like it should, and I don’t know about everyone else, but I couldn’t recognize Cumberbatch’s voice even though I knew it was him before I saw the movie.

One part of the film that adds to what we know from the book very well is the treatment of the human community, Laketown.  The book touches on the subject but does not go into much detail, but Jackson adds many touches to show the effects of the original dragon attack years ago.  The humans once lived in a great city, now many of them are scraping by and even the richest, most corrupt of them is only rich compared to the citizens around him; a truly rich person from a city would likely laugh at his ‘wealth’.  The town and people look like life has been hard for them and this underscores what happens in this film and what will happen in the last part of the trilogy.

Now here is where I’m getting into serious SPOILER territory.  As I said, I like to judge a movie on its own merits, and the one part of The Desolation of Smaug I found hardest to take was the end sequence.  I realize that Jackson wanted to make the end very exciting and something new for viewers to feast their eyes on, and he did that part very well.  My suspension of belief could not quite handle an ancient, experienced dragon turning away from easy kills of the creatures he hates simply because another dwarf calls to him from another direction (I didn’t hear a line about Smaug missing his dosage of Ritalin or anything), a small group of ten beings being able to start up a gigantic metalworks refinery that has sat quiet for over 30 years and get it to produce a massive amount of melted gold within a few minutes while being chased by the drgon, and the fact that during this entire sequence the dragon did not kill even one of his intruders…it was a little too much for me.  I’m sure a lot of folks will disagree with that, and I must say that this was the only time watching the movie that I began to wonder how much longer the film was.  And of course, it ends literally moments after that sequence, leaving everyone’s final fates for the third part, There and Back Again.

There are other little gripes I could name (like one scene that mimicked a shot in the Harry Potter series.  It could have been done a hundred different ways to avoid the similarity), but nothing else really took me out of enjoying the movie, and when the credits rolled I did not feel like I had been in the theater as long as I had.  And I have no problem with The Hobbit movies being a little less graphic in the blood and violence department and being a bit sillier and over the top than Jackson’s first trilogy.  The original book was aimed at a younger audience than the later LOTR novel were, and Jackson seems to be following the same idea, making the new trilogy more kid friendly (though I don’t know about littler kids, there are things here that could scare them).  It may be just my opinion, but where so many movies try to be epic and fail, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug looks, sounds, and feels like an epic.  I’m really looking forward to the third movie and the Battle of Five Armies, no doubt about that.

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Louise’s Rating: Elves! Why did it have to be elves?

Louise’s Review: Although we look like one human race, there is in fact a massive divide between the people on this planet. No, I don’t mean, “Are you a cat person or are you a dog person?” (For the record – I am neither. On some level I just don’t see the point of animals). I don’t even mean, “Red sauce or brown sauce?” (Naturally, red sauce on burgers and brown sauce on sausages is the only way to do it). No, I mean… Elf or Dwarf? Choose your side wisely.

I’m a Dwarf. Maybe it’s because I’m short and ginger, but it’s always been the Dwarves with whom I’ve identified. I feel I *get* them in a way that I just don’t *get* elves, who have never held any fascination for me. They get on my nerves. Why would you want to write a story about creatures who are taller, slimmer, more intelligent, more talented than anybody you would really meet? They really are insufferable creatures, always having secret parties, playing agonizingly sweet music, acting like they know so much more than everybody else, and posing, posing, posing! Dwarves are much better. Axes are cool, beards are hot and the jewellery isn’t made out of leaves.

The Hobbit films have lots of Dwarves and that’s really what I’ve come for. However, I was rather disappointed by Desolation of Smaug. That makes me sad, because I really, really wanted to enjoy it. Firstly, it suffers from being the middle part of a longer story in a way that The Two Towers didn’t. More importantly, it has a certain distastefully over-the-top quality. Now, Peter Jackson is not a subtle filmmaker, but his two Hobbit films take it to another level. They come across, to me, as being parodies of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Middle-Earth brought to burlesque, if you will. They are too brightly coloured, the action is too video-gamey and CGI’d, most of the dialogue seems cursory and, not to be rude, but… didn’t we do this ten years ago? Guys, don’t you remember doing all this before? We did it, we enjoyed it, we watched the extra scenes… then we moved on to other things.

Our heroes – Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, Thorin Oakenshield, Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Balin, Dwalin, Ori, Nori and Dori – are on their way to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the Dwarf homeland and slay the dragon that has taken it over. This part of their story takes them from the house of Beorn the were-bear (what?) through the forest of Mirkwood (watch out for those spiders!) and into the dungeons of the king of the Wood-Elves (ugh, Thranduil, ugh…), before a river journey (splash splash!) brings them to the miserable settlement of Lake-town. Here everything gets seriously boring with a feud between the mayor and a Sexy Single Dad Smuggler Guy, until our heroes make it to the mountain itself. Bilbo Baggins descends into the lair of Smaug (the dragon) whereupon the Big Scaly One gets so angry he decides to fly away to burn Lake-town to the ground for aiding and abetting the Dwarves. Cue emotional whisper of, “What have we done?”

Let’s start with what Desolation of Smaug does completely and utterly and fantastically well: Smaug himself. Peter Jackson obviously found a *real* dragon somewhere in the mountains of New Zealand because there is *no way* that dragon is CGI. It is a real dragon. Voiced by an actor, obviously, because real dragons can’t talk, but unquestionably real. Let me say it again: you ain’t never seen a dragon like this before. We’ve come a long way since young Peter MacNicol was a Dragonslayer and Smaug makes even Sean Connery’s Draco seem like a dinosaur figurine with an animated mouth. My only criticism is that Benedict Cumberbatch’s excellent vocal work was fuzzed up in post-production – you can’t tell it’s him and that’s rather a shame.

The music is also of high quality: I rather like the Bard/Lake-town theme because the string section really come into play. The actor playing the Master of Lake-town was also a complete (and very pleasant) surprise to me. Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman as the hearts of the action turn in creditable performances (and they are, ahem, not unattractive). Sir Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is becoming a bit of a caricature, in my opinion, but he and the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy as Radagast) make quite a diverting double act.

Everything else, well, is a bit, unsatisfactory. We don’t learn enough about Beorn, and the encounter between Smaug and Bilbo, which should be the absolute high point of the whole trilogy, feels cut short. Furthermore, Bilbo gets the Dwarves out of the impregnable Elvish dungeons in about five minutes. Rush, rush, rush. We have three films – why are we rushing? Yet we have shot after shot of Elf Lady bending over backwards and shooting arrows into orcs at point-blank range, a love triangle between Elf Lady, Fili or Kili (the dark-haired one) and Legolas (what?), ridiculous Soviet-style subterfuge in Lake-town, Gandalf’s subplot, and the whole thing just takes much *longer* than it needs to. The Dwarves and all the visual differentiation that has gone into them is absolutely wasted, because they are almost interchangeable here. Another problem is that no character is particularly likeable. They’re not nice to spend time with. Thorin doesn’t deserve to regain his kingdom. Thranduil, Tauriel and Legolas are Elves, so ’nuff said. With notable exceptions for Bilbo and Balin, I came out feeling I had more in common with Smaug than with anybody else. Yeah, you break into my den and mess around with my stuff, I’ll get more than a little peeved. Whatever it was your den and your stuff to begin with, but you know what, you’ve left it decades before you stirred yourself to come back, and that tells me you don’t really deserve this fine crib and bling.

Ahem. Butter spread over too much bread, indeed.

So will I watch it again? Almost definitely. I’ll probably buy it in a Hobbit box set come Christmas 2014 and see it a good few times eventually. It might well improve when it can be watched between parts one and three (certainly Unexpected Journey went down easier the second time around) but I don’t have high hopes. Recommended for completists and 12 year olds only.

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Tauriel: “Did you just say Merida is a better archer than me?”
Legolas: “She has more meat on her, too. I don’t like scrawny girls!”

The Intermission: 

  • Many of the things Peter Jackson adds to his trilogy can be found elsewhere in Tolkien’s writings.  Jackson and his crew read many of the writer’s works and learned what else went on during the journey from The Shire to Erebor and added them to the movie narrative.  Jackson still used plenty of creative license with the material, though.
  • Legolas is kinda-sorta in the book, The Hobbit.  The novel mentions that the King of the wood elves had a son, though the son goes unnamed and is not described.
  • The Elf maiden Tauriel again is a brand new character designed for the film.
  • When I watched the film, I started wondering how Bolg’s orc daddy Azog would feel when his son reported back to him.  I mean, that is a pretty heavy orcish body count going on, we’re talking Rambo levels of dead orcs!  I feel the elves Legolas and Tauriel are almost too good at archery and fighting as depicted here.
  • When I watched this in the theater and the company was climbing the mountain towards the entrance, I heard someone behind me start singing lowly, “Hi ho, hi ho!  It’s off to work we go.”  Heh heh!
  • I find myself wondering if Doc Terminus would offer the dwarves more than $5 for Smaug’s body if the group succeeds in slaying the dragon.

Groovy Quotes:

Gandalf: You’ve changed, Bilbo Baggins. You’re not the same Hobbit as the one who left the Shire.

Beorn:  I don’t like dwarfs, they’re greedy and blind, blind to the lives of those they deem less than their own…but orcs I hate more.

Azog:  I have a task for you. Do you still thirst for Dwarf blood?

Kili:  Aren’t you going to search me? I could have anything down my trousers.
Tauriel: Or nothing.

Tauriel: When did we allow evil to become stronger than us?

Bard the Hunter’s daughter: Why are there dwarves coming out of our toilet?

Smaug: Well, thief! I smell you, I hear your breath, I feel your air. Where are you?

Bilbo: Well, I really must not detain Your Excellency any longer, or keep you from a much-needed rest. Ponies take some catching, I believe, after a long start. And so do burglars!

Smaug: I am fire.  I am death.
Bilbo: What have we done?

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey
  • The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
  • The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
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6 Comments

  1. @ Joel: For a moment, you had me worried that your halfling rant was sincere.

    @ Louise: Here’s something which might be of interest to you. In the Larry Correia novel Monster Hunter International, the characters go to meet some elves to consult on some weird happenings. The elves in question are essentially trailer park trash.

  2. Louise (or, either of you, really, but Louise’s review is closer to what mine would be) -
    Personally, what I can’t get over about this series so far is all the unnecessary stuff that is just jammed into the story. Yes, I know Tolkein said that most of this stuff was happening at the same time, but it’s NOT IN THE BOOK. You are adapting the BOOK, Jackson! Not the fiddly little notes the author scribbled in the margins after the fact, the book ITSELF. And when he sticks to the book, or even extrapolates from it a bit, I actually find myself really enjoying myself, but then there’s all this other stuff trying to convince us that these are actually Lord of the Rings movies when they’re NOT – they’re Hobbit movies, and The Hobbit is very different in tone. The two clash.
    Also, it really really REALLY doesn’t need to be a trilogy in the first place. I constantly find myself going ‘See, if you cut out THAT, and THAT, and thatandthatandthatandthatandthat, and put it together with the same sort of stuff from the first, you’d have… MAYBE two hours?’ Two and a bit, perhaps. ‘Desolation of Smaug’ is almost three hours, which makes it about two-thirds fluff. They could fit the entire book, with room to spare, into one long movie or two normal ones – and now we’ve got the THIRD movie coming up, which is going to be based around something like two chapters of the book so they’re going to have to jam in goodness-only-knows how much extraneous bits and arrrrgh.
    See, here’s the thing – I have no doubt that Jackson could make a really incredible Hobbit film. In bits and pieces, he has, and that’s what I keep watching the movies for, because I love the book. But the rest is filler. This is ‘Filler: The Trilogy’, and while none of the filler is bad, per se, and it’s very pretty and all, that doesn’t stop it from leaving a bad taste in my mouth.
    Anyway. Good reviews, both of you.

      • The thing is, though – and in a way, this is more frustrating – the filler isn’t a trudge. None of it is BAD; it’s as well-written, well-acted and well-designed as the rest. If you watch the Hobbit films, you will be getting a quality cinematic experience, just one that’s… well, full of filler. It’s good stuff, it’s just unnecessary stuff.

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