You may notice that the byline for this review is wrong. Being the big boss man means Paul gets to rock the reviews for the happening new things himself, but it also means he’s a busy, busy guy so he’s decided to pass this one off to me. It makes sense since I was less than kind to his take on the previous film. Being a lifelong Tolkien fanatic and Peter Jackson supporter and all that, it’s my job to lob grenades at reviewers who don’t have the same attachment to the source material. It’s a nerd thing. Well, this time the grenades are coming at me. Serves me right, I suppose. Aim well, readers.
I was a big fan of An Unexpected Journey. In spite of the unnecessary bloating , additions, and bird dooky-covered hobo, it really felt like I was back in Middle Earth enjoying a different take on one of the most influential stories of my life. It just felt right. I didn’t care about any fancy high frame rates or 3D and I wasn’t judging what the next two films would be like as most reviewers were. The fact is, I watched that film for three hours starting at midnight and at the end I wanted three more hours.
I got two and a half more hours last Friday at midnight and the bottom line is that I left pissed. The song at the end sounded awesome, but I just wanted to leave so I couldn’t enjoy it. Do you want me to say that The Desolation of Smaug made me feel desolate? Because I will if that’s what you want. I’ll go up and change the title of this article to “Smaug is desolate” or something right now. Okay, maybe not.
Really, it wasn’t all that bad. The film started off gloriously and I kept thinking to myself what a great director Peter Jackson is. The man has great visual style, timing, and his team always has a strong cohesive vision. But by the end of this one for the first time, I really felt the biggest and most common criticism of the man: the bloat; that need to make everything SO FREAKIN’ EPIC and then making the next thing EVEN EPICER THAN THAT.
We start off with our company still on the run from Azog’s warg-riders and Bilbo still proving his worth. But fear not, there is precious little time for the title character in this middle chapter of The Hobbit trilogy. By the end, he’s practically a non-entity in his own story.
Beorn the skinchanger promised to be one of the highlights of the story and he was. I was expecting more than was given, but what was there was right in step with the book, right down to the dinner menu. Little details like these have impressed me in every film of the series. Say what you want about PJ’s excessiveness, but he gets the little details right on most of the time, and fans of the original works respect and appreciate that.
At this point, Gandalf leaves the company as he did in the book. What the films give us that the book did not is what the hell the wizard was up to. In both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the purpose of Gandalf’s absences are often kept mysterious. Tolkien knew and divulged this information in other sources, but I always assumed it was to force Frodo/Bilbo’s true strength and potential to surface. Well, in Jackson’s films, the blanks are thankfully filled in.
I say thankfully because people freaking out over not knowing what happened when Batman left the Joker alone at the party in The Dark Knight taught me nothing so much as people really want their widdle hands held at all times. I love that Tolkien often only told you what the protagonist knew and left the rest vague and mysterious because it put you in their shoes and let you experience the events from their perspective.
Interestingly, Gandalf uses a lot more magic in this film than in previous ones. Jackson is on record as saying he doesn’t like magic and has avoided as much of it as he could thusfar. I’m not sure why he changed his mind, but we do see some more of Gandalf’s magic this time out, and what lurks in the fortress of Dol Guldur is more than he expected to find.
After some arachnophobic nightmares in the forest of Mirkwood and some hijinks involving a theme-park barrel ride with bonus orc-slaying, the film encounters a problem. That problem is named Legolas. The character hails from Mirkwood, so putting him in the story briefly made all of the sense in the world, but even beyond that point he takes over the damn movie for no good reason.
Though one could argue there’s always room for more pretty, pretty people.
A lot of people might say that there is no such thing as too much action in a movie. Hell, I might have said that at some point. Well, that isn’t true in this case. I’d estimate that some twenty minutes of the movie is spent on scenes of Legolas shooting arrows, decapitating foes, and surfing on their corpses. Yes, apparently he was quite the corpse surfer back in his pre-Fellowship days.
On top of making Orlando Bloom’s dreamy elf the star of the show, Jackson knew he needed something for the gentlemen in the audience as well. There’s only so many hairy dwarves and hobbits a man can take, after all. Enter Evangeline Lilly as the gorgeous auburn-haired elvish warrior, Tauriel. While I agree with adding a strong female character to such a male-dominated narrative, it’s kind of unfortunate that she’s used as fodder for a poorly conceived love triangle which is, in turn, used an excuse to drag Legolas along for more unnecessary action scenes that start to look like different levels in a beat-em-up video game after a while.
Throw in some unwanted Laketown politics and the pacing of the second half of the film becomes nightmarish. But there’s a dragon on the way, folks; we’ve just got to get to the dragon and everything will be awesome again. It’s really hard to screw up a fire-breathing dragon.
In The Hobbit, Tolkien portrayed Thorin as well-meaning at first, but obsessed Ahab-like with reclaiming his people’s lost fortune and heritage, seeing Bilbo as a means to that end and eventually succumbing to his own greed when the fellowship he already shared was a bigger prize to begin with. Smaug represented greed embodied; the capitalist who kills the economy by gathering all of the wealth for himself and then simply sitting on it rather than spending it to keep the economy flowing as capital is meant to. There has never been a more apt metaphor for what our country is currently going through.
While the latter image of the two speaks for itself and didn’t need to be highlighted, Jackson dropped the ball by having Thorin go from giving up in the quest at the freakin’ door one minute to going full creepy the next with precious little foreshadowing or development since the first film. Even Anakin Skywalker thought that was weak character work, and god knows there was plenty of screen time available for it.
That brings us back to the title characters. The absolute highlight of this film was once again, Bilbo facing down a true menace alone. His confrontation with the dragon is amazing. The dialogue and shots in that sequence were intense and impressive. As Smaug, Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice captured the perfect amount of bored haughtiness and commanding arrogance that one would attribute to a massive invincible monster who has been sleeping for decades, having claiming for his own everything in that part of the world worth claiming.
That scene by itself was worth the price of admission. As expected, Smaug is the best thing about the movie. Mission accomplished, let’s get back to Laketown and wrap this storyline up with the epic climax this movie deserves. But wait! Why ruin the horrible pacing now by sticking to the book? Why not cram in one last action scene so epic and so long and so unnecessary that we have to leave this plotline for the last movie to tie up in spite of the fact that there is already an epic setpiece in the book that will take up half of that movie?
You know how I said it’s hard to screw up a fire-breathing dragon? Well, it can be done. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing when there is no narrative reason for it. The chase through the Lonely Mountain was beyond ridiculous. It belongs in one of Michael Bay’s Transformers films or something. I’m not even joking when I say that my exact thoughts during this sequence were as follows: “PJ. What r u doing? PJ. Stahp.”
All that time, all that money, all of the crazy complex machinery and molten gold and flames and stunts and silliness just to accomplish taking me completely out of the film and then they fade to black right when things get back on track when there was a much more obvious place for the film to end that could have been accomplished in the same amount of time and wouldn’t have made me wish I’d order popcorn so I could throw my bucket at the screen? Why?
Because reasons, Barrel-rider!
I didn’t hate The Desolation of Smaug, but I left angry regardless. I expected more. And when say more, I don’t mean more meandering plotlines that don’t relate to the core story, I don’t mean more lengthy action setpieces, and I don’t mean more half-assed romance. I wanted more character development, more thought given to the pacing, and more of the Peter Jackson that made the first four Tolkien films; the one who gave a crap about the original work and worried about what to leave out instead of what he could shoehorn in.
I will almost surely be getting the blu-ray at some point so the series has obviously not lost me as a fan, but I’m now worried about the final film whereas prior to the second half of The Desolation of Smaug there was only confidence. Sure, Jackson makes bloated films, but they never ceased entertaining me until now. I was never, ever bored during a PJ epic before. And to make me bored during an action sequence with a freakin’ dragon in it is a thing that has only been done once before in Dragon Wars. That is not a place you want to be.
For all my defending of An Unexpected Journey, the sequel seems to have vindicated the fears of that film’s critics that they were stretching the book’s narrative farther than it would go with a trilogy. Ironically, most of the critics seem to agree that this middle entry is better. Urge to kill: rising. Still, you’ve got to see it for yourself. It’s not as long a film as the first –although it felt longer to me- but if your complaint was not enough action or hot elvish girls, then maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did. And who knows, maybe I’ll feel differently about it this time next year when the entire epic will be made whole.