***SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS***
Last year, I wrote a review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey after seeing it with my best friends on opening night. Though one of those friends tragically passed away this year, my remaining comrade and I were determined to honor her memory and our nerdiness by carrying on the tradition, as we have done since The Fellowship of the Ring was released back in 2001. The time has come to write my review of the second installment of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug.
I saw The Desolation of Smaug twice in two days, and I have feelings about it. Some of these feelings are positive, some are negative, and I'll try to do justice to both. It's hard to say right now which outweighs the other, or if they're exactly even, although I will say that I ended up with more positive feelings after the second viewing. No doubt I'll come off as somewhat of a Peter Jackson apologist, and Cthulu knows I'm definitely a Tolkien apologist. Now, there's a lot of movie to get through, and I'm going to attempt to do this somewhat chronologically.
Beorn and Mirkwood
As I said in my review of the first film, I think that they both have editing issues. My specific problems with Desolation are the awkward cuts between sub-plots. The film is all over the place, especially after Gandalf leaves Thorin and Company at the edge of Mirkwood, giving them strict instructions to stay on the path.
But first, Beorn. One of my favorite moments when reading The Hobbit is the way Gandalf manipulates Beorn into hosting a large company of dwarves by drawing him into the story of their journey so far. This wasn't the way it was done in the film, but we are treated to some of Beorn's backstory, and the history of skinchangers in Middle Earth. Beorn has a unique accent which sets him apart from Men, and I appreciated that. His house was lovely, and the bees were a really nice touch. I wish we could have seen more of him, but since the film shortened the timetable of the dwarves' quest, it necessarily paced the film much quicker than the book. At this point, Durin's Day is only about 48 hours away.
Unfortunately, this means that we don't get to spend any creepy nights full of mysterious eyes in the darkness, or cross a river that causes an enchanted sleep that forces the Company to haul Bombur's ass all over the forest. I truly think that skipping the opportunity to increase the tension in Mirkwood by having Bilbo and the dwarves spend an uneasy night wondering who or what all of those eyes belong to was a mistake – especially if those eyes were spider eyes. We glimpsed the spiders in An Unexpected Journey, but it would have been nice to put off the reveal until after everyone was suitably terrified.
This is not to say that the spiders weren't terrifying on their own, even without that kind of set-up. They absolutely were! My arachnophic friend was clutching my arm and trying to muffle her shrieks, but the whole sequence didn't last as long as I'd thought it might. I really liked the way that the effects of the Ring on Bilbo are already becoming apparent – when he attacks that yucky non-spider-but-unidentifiable-icky-thing with the newly-christened Sting, and then says, "Mine!" when he reclaims the Ring is actually quite chilling, and Martin Freeman was able to expertly convey Bilbo's dismay when he realizes that he wasn't quite in his right mind.
We're introduced to Tauriel when the elves come to save the Company from Death By Spider. I know that some people are upset by the introduction of a non-canon character, but I'm really not. I absolutely agree with the decision to add another (aside from Galadriel) main female character to the cast. In the book, there's not a single line of dialogue spoken by a female character. Not. A. One. Representation is important, and even though it might not be strictly true to the story it's important to allow girls and women to be able to potentially see themselves in just one character here.
That being said, I didn't enjoy the way her character was used in setting up an entirely unexpected love triangle between Tauriel, Legolas and Kili. I don't have a problem with a dwarf falling in love with an elf – Gimli fell in love with Galadriel, after all, though that was unrequited and Very Romantic. It was the pace of the flirtation that annoyed me more than anything else. I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for wizards and orcs and Hobbits and dragons, so it might seem silly that my sticking point happens to be elf/dwarf flirtation. But it really would have made so much more sense if the dwarves had been captives of the elves for more than just one day, if it were really necessary to Go There. Tauriel and Kili could have had more than just one conversation, which would have made their odd connection much more plausible to me. As it was, the flirting scene felt forced and overlong – I understood what the film was going for, here, and the awkwardness of the scene was somewhat painful.
I fell instantly in love with the scene in which Bilbo engineers the dwarves' Escape by Barrel! And I felt a rush of gratitude that only true fans can know when their favorite little details are represented on screen – the part where Bilbo realizes that he's forgotten that he needs to escape, too, was Precious. But the resulting chase scene with orcs and elves all over the place got old very quickly. I had no idea where they were going when Kili was hit with that orc arrow, and when I found out I was Not Pleased. More on that later.
Oh, Lake Town was great! Politics! Spies! Intrigue! But it wasn't perfect. I loved Stephen Fry as the Master, and he had an appropriately obsequious, power-hungry sidekick. It was like Wormtongue with much lower stakes. I appreciate the effort to establish Bard as a character we can care about, as opposed to the afterthought he felt like in the book. And of course, there were more female speaking parts with the inclusion of his daughters, who were fine. I was surprised about how the Black Arrow became much more of A Thing, and here's my take on it:
Peter Jackson is taking a leaf out of Terry Pratchett's book. Specifically, Guards! Guards! For those of you who haven't read it, there is a part in the book where a lowly City Watchman is preparing to slay a marauding dragon with a lucky arrow, and the resulting discussion between him and his colleagues about the Proper Way to go about it results in him standing on one leg, blindfolded, so that there's no way he can possibly fail. You see, the stakes have to be exceedingly high in situations such as these. It's a Million To One Chance. If you only have a fair chance, or a fifty-fifty chance, you'll definitely fail. Which is why these Watchmen had to increase the odds so that it was absolutely a Sure Thing.
This is what Jackson is doing here. By throwing Bard in jail and establishing that there is only one arrow left that could possibly kill Smaug, and that there is only one tiny spot on this enormous dragon that this arrow can hit, he's increasing the odds to a Million to One. Bard can't possibly fail.
Something that actually really upset me about the Lake Town portion of the film is the fact that Thorin split the Company. That was shocking, actually! I did not see that coming. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, when the Fellowship is further sundered at the River Anduin after losing Gandalf in Moria, it's a tragic thing. Boromir is overcome by the Ring's influence and attacks Frodo, which causes him to leave with Sam. Boromir then dies defending Merry and Pippin, who are taken by the Uruk-hai. That leaves Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli to muddle on through.
Thorin's Company isn't separated (at least, isn't separated apart from Gandalf showing up and disappearing on a regular basis) until the Battle of Five armies, when Thorin, Fili and Kili die in combat. I felt betrayed when Thorin forced Kili to stay behind, splitting the Company unnecessarily (at least, it would have been unnecessary if Kili hadn't been shot with a Morgul shaft, which is apparently A Thing now) and reducing the impact that the coming deaths will have in the third film.
Just a quick shout-out to my second-favorite Tolkien uberfan, after Christopher Lee: Stephen Colbert has a cameo in Lake Town. I wasn't able to immediately spot and recognize him myself, but according to the credits he and his family are some of the Lake Town spies, so keep your eyes open! I think Stephen might be the one with the eyepatch. Here's a video of Stephen handing James Franco his ass in a Tolkien trivia smackdown. Enjoy!
The scenes with Gandalf investigating the tombs of the Nazgul and searching Dol Guldur for the Necromancer are exactly why I had issues with the editing of Desolation. The film did not flow smoothly from subplot to subplot, and the cuts to Gandalf, as awesome as he is, were very rough indeed. It's hard to understand why it was even included, to be honest, because it doesn't seem like Gandalf was able to accomplish much of anything but getting his staff burned up and a stay in a gibbet. My love for Ian McKellan's portrayal of my most favorite wizard remains true, but these parts were pretty unnecessary.
And did we have to be reminded that Radagast allows the birds that nest in his hair to shit on his face?
Smaug, Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities
In An Unexpected Journey, any and all issues I had with the film evaporated completely when we reached the Riddles in the Dark scene. The same is true for Desolation. All of the eyeroll-inducing moments, all of the "Wait, what?" bits, all of the "That's not how it was done in the book" thoughts left me completely, and I was able to bask in the glory that is Smaug the Terrible.
I would not change a single thing about him. He is easily and by far the best-designed dragon I have ever seen. The best. And Benedict Cumberbatch performs his lines like they were out of a Shakespearean play. Being one of my favorite moments from the book, the way that Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch play off one another as Bilbo and Smaug is fucking astounding. Here's a link to an article about the motion capture process Cumberbatch went through to capture both the dialogue and the movement of the dragon.
Smaug is cunning, and evil, and greedy, and powerful, and glorious. He makes it utterly clear that Bilbo is alive only as long as he offers interesting conversation – and after that, CHOMP! Iloved the reference Smaug makes the Ring in Bilbo's possession, calling it Precious.
All of that said, Thorin is The Worst at killing dragons. Seriously. Even if I could accept that after so many years, Thorin remembered that there was a stone mold of Thror waiting to be filled with molten gold, I can't accept that he really thought that was a good plan. How on Middle Earth would that kill a fucking dragon? He swims in gold like Scrooge McDuck! He's immune to fire and heat!
The only thing that could be said for that terrible, TERRIBLE plan is that Smaug looks so gorgeous covered in gold that it makes me want to write poetry about him. I expected that the film would end on the cliffhanger of Smaug flying away to wreck the shit out of Lake Town, and I cannot wait to see more of him in The Battle of Five Armies. I am going to be sad when he dies, no matter what kind of devastation he wreaks on the people of Lake Town.
Smaug is the true star of this film, no two ways about it.
I'm totally seeing this again.