Date Posted: 2013-12-22
Tolkien Fan Level: 10
Film Format Seen? Imax 3D
Will view again in a different format? Yes
NB: This review is going to be packed with spoilers.
After the patchiness of An Unexpected Journey, I had high hopes for The Desolation of Smaug. A Tolkien fanatic since the age of 13, I had just spent an entire term teaching my class of 12-year-olds to love Middle-earth as much as I do. In English lessons, we read the book, talked about the unlikely heroism of Bilbo, the grey-ness of Thorin's motives and actions and the terrifying erudition of Smaug. My class was ridiculously excited about our trip the cinema, fresh off their own ventures into writing screenplays based on episodes in The Hobbit. Having written, directed and filmed their own short movies, they were excited to see what Peter Jackson would do. Unlike a lot of critics, I found the initial Bree sequence a bit out of place. For one, it was almost a parody of the sequence from FOTR, which, while it may have been intended as a nod to the LOTR movies, ended up pulling me out of the story. Following on from this, the Beorn sequence was mildly disappointing because I love the way Gandalf cleverly balances Beorn's curiosity against his dislike for strangers - it's one of those instances that shows us Gandalf's penchant for using means other than brute force to achieve his ends. This Beorn was strangely grim and didn't make much of an impact on the narrative in general, which is a great pity, he is a character unlike any of the others. In contrast, I was thoroughly impressed with the introduction of Thranduil. The lingering shots of his baubles and his crown were perfectly in keeping with the impression we are meant to have of his character and those moments were a throwback to the understated magnificence that made me love The Lord of the Rings movies. The conversation between Thranduil and Thorin was pitch perfect as well, with the arrogance and pride of each character playing off well against their divergent purposes. I'm a staunch feminist and I have always objected to accusations of misogyny made against Tolkien because anyone who has actually bothered to read his work will know that he has any number of strong female characters, both minor and major - and I don't just mean Galadriel and Eowyn! I objected to the inclusion of Tauriel on the principle that it wasn't necessary to introduce a whole new character, but I will say that she was a pleasantly appropriate addition to the story. In fact, one of my favourite moments in the film occurs during her conversation with Kili - the reference to starlight and memory was perfectly Elvish and canonical and a bright spot in an otherwise murky romantinc storyline. Which brings me to...Legolas. I have loved Legolas since I was a hormonal fourteen-year-old and I was appalled by the decision to turn him into a Super Ninja Elf Killing Machine, which is a perversion of who he is, both in the LOTR movies AND the books. The sequence with the barrels, while for the most part thrilling to watch, went downhill when it featured Legolas stepping on the heads of Dwarves and performing acrobatic stunts. It also went on too long. The fleshing out of Bard's character, though, was a welcome addition, because he is one of the weaker characters in The Hobbit. Giving him a story gives the audience a reason to root for him, and it is a decision I applaud. His character arc was a little unclear, because I'm not entirely certain why the Master would consider him a threat - he isn't shown doing anything more threatening than selling fish to starving townspeople. I also didn't think Master needed a slimy sidekick - he is slimy enough for an entire town! Stephen Fry was brilliantly smarmy as the Master, just as Luke Evans was grimly sympathetic as Bard. The acting on the whole was of a consistently high standard but if there's a reason I've spent most of my review talking about people other than Bilbo, it's because the movie doesn't focus on him. He is sidelined, a mere hanger-on in his own story and that, I think, is where DoS failed me (and my class) most. Sure, his moments of triumph - with the killing of the spiders and the barrel rescue - were retained, but they weren't as emphasised as the key moments of other characters. He only ever comes into his own against Smaug, and that confrontation is stupendously well done. Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch pitted against each other makes for riveting watching and as a longtime fan of Smaug, I was more than satisfied with his screen self. I think the problem with DoS is that it tries too hard to pander to Hollywood big-budget expectations. Everything is too much: too full of action, too loud, too fast, too over-the-top. his was most evident in the inexplicably extended sequence in The Lonely Mountain featuring the Dwarves and Smaug and the laughable plot to drown him in gold. Jackson showed in the LOTR movies that he could do both quiet little moments as well as chaotic battles, but he seems to have lost that subtle touch here. Pity!
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