Friday, December 27, 2013

5 Things I Liked – And Didn’t Like – About The Desolation of Smaug

This past weekend, my daughter and I saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second installment of Peter Jackson’s take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (you can read my review of the novel here). Unlike The Lord of the Rings, where each book in the trilogy fit nicely into its own 3-hour film, Jackson has stretched the single book of The Hobbit into three films. Here are my thoughts on part 2:

1.   Jackson Has Turned The Hobbit Into a True Prequel.

Tolkien wrote The Hobbit years before writing The Lord of the Rings, and it’s pretty clear that when he did so he didn’t have a sequel planned. It wasn’t until his publisher asked for a sequel that The Lord of the Rings was born. As a result, there is very little in The Hobbit that really sets the stage for the next three books. While it’s true that Bilbo finds the ring in the scene with Gollum, he uses it without any ill effects and with no hint that it’s one of the most evil artifacts ever created. In the film, however, Jackson has the ring already taking hold of Bilbo, and he offers more than enough hints as to the dark master who gave it its power. For example, in the Mirkwood scene with the spiders, Bilbo can only understand their speech with the ring on, and when he temporarily loses the ring, he almost loses his mind. This was very well done, and an improvement over the book (even Smaug refers to the ring as “precious,” which is a nice touch).

Also, while The Hobbit mentions a Necromancer that Gandalf must leave the expedition to go deal with, the book never covers those scenes and there’s really no hint that this necromancer is Sauron returning to Middle Earth. In the Appendix to The Lord of the Rings, however, Tolkien later makes it clear that this Necromancer of Dol Guldur was Sauron, and Jackson has drawn on this material to add an entire plotline to the movie – that of Gandalf and his fellow wizards dealing with this emerging threat. He even ties Smaug into the mix by showing that Gandalf’s whole purpose behind the dwarves’ mission is to prevent the immensely powerful dragon from falling under the control of a darker master.

The Necromancer scenes help make this a true prequel

2.  Orcs are everywhere, and there’s a bit too many of them.

One of the ways Jackson has stretched The Hobbit into three films is by adding an entire new plotline involving Azog, the “Pale Orc.” This character is referred to in just a single line of The Hobbit and never makes an appearance in the book. Jackson, by contrast, has Azog and his chief minion, Bolg, hunting down Thorin and Company wherever they go. He was used fairly well in the first film, especially by turning the tree scene with the wargs into a fitting ending to the first installment. This time, Azog is summoned by Sauron to protect Dol Guldur, and since this obviously hinders his plans to kill Thorin (the dwarf who cut off Azaog’s arm), he sends Bolg and his fellow orcs to do the job, and thereafter they infest nearly every scene in the film. The orcs are chasing the dwarves to Beorn’s house, they’re attacking the wood elves, they’re roaming the streets and rooftops of Lake-Town. They’re damn near everywhere. In fact, I was surprised they weren’t hanging out with the dragon. While some of these scenes were well done, I found the constant orc fights a bit tiring by the end.

3.  The barrel riding scene is tremendous!

That said, the scene where the dwarves escape from the wood elves in barrels was fantastic. There are water falls, rushing rivers, pursuing elves, and yes, more orcs. But this time all the action seemed to work. I cannot wait for the first amusement park to offer a simulation of this barrel ride. Seriously, someone needs to do this. It just looks too damn fun!

The end of the barrel ride offers its own reward as we’re introduced to Bard and Lake-Town. Imagine a dirty, ramshackle Venice and you’ll start to get the picture. The setting looked better than I had ever imagined after reading the book, kind of like Rivendale did when Peter Jackson brought it to life in The Lord of the Rings.

These elves are nice additions to the film!

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the addition of Legolas and the Tauriel, a female Wood Elf played by Evangeline Lily (of LOST fame), who are involved in the barrel riding scene, as well as all the Wood Elf scenes in the film. I thought both characters worked. In the lore of The Lord of the Rings, Legolas (who is not mentioned in The Hobbit) is the son of the Wood Elf king Thranduil (who does appear in The Hobbit, and is great in the film), so he naturally would have been present when Bilbo and the dwarves entered the elves’ Mirkwood realm. Tauriel, on the other hand, was a character created by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh for the film. Yet without her, the film would have no female characters because I don't believe there are any in the book. That’s one of the book’s weaker points, so her appearance in the film is a plus in my view.

4.  The ending was too abrupt, and not what I was expecting.

I went into this film believing that it would cover the entire Smaug storyline and that the third film would consist of an extended version of the Battle of the Five Armies and the resolution of the Necromancer plotline. Boy was I wrong. Instead, we get an extended chase sequence with Smaug pursuing the dwarves all around the underground city of Erebor. While much of this was well done (even if it was nothing like the scene in the novel), it dragged on. Little did I know that this scene would be the movie’s climax, only to abruptly end with Smaug leaving Erebor for Lake-Town. So now we must wait a year to wrap up Smaug’s story, and I found that a tad disappointing.

The dragon is worth the price of admission!

5.  Smaug is amazing!

Regardless of how the movie ended, the rendition of the dragon is tremendous. From its voice, to its massive wings and flaming breath, I must say that Smaug is the most incredible dragon I’ve ever seen presented in film. The dragon alone is arguably worth the price of admission.

I’m sure I’ll see the movie again when it comes out on DVD, and I’m sure my opinions on the film will continue to evolve (I ended up liking the first movie much more after watching it again). Overall, however, I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug, and look forward to finishing the series in 2014.

Speaking of the upcoming year, this marks my final blog post of 2013, but I’ll be back with another one just after the holiday. Until then, have a happy New Year!


Bill said...

Thanks for the review, Joe. I'm not sure I'll see this before it's on cable, but it's good to know what to expect.

Joseph Finley said...

Bill, thanks for the comment, and have a happy New year!

Naja Tau said...

I haven't seen this one yet, but I am looking definitely forward to seeing Bennedict Cumberbatch play one of my favorite characters in one of my favorite books!

Joseph Finley said...

Naja - thanks for your comment! Cumberbatch's voice is one of the things that makes Samug to incredible!