Editor Note: Our latest staff review comes from Mithril… A friend of TORn since its beginnings, Mithril became a staff member in 2013 after The One Expected Oscar Party for which she created 20-foot-tall Dwarven and Elven banners. She is a moderator of The Great Hall of Poets, and you can oft times find her escaping to Middle-earth by writing poetry herself or slipping into one of its characters through cosplay. In the real world, she is an art director and designer, and her work appears in the film “Ringers: Lord of the Fans”.
Although Peter Jackson takes us on a non-stop wild ride from the edge of the wilds to the Lonely Mountain in “The Desolation of Smaug”, this fan did not always agree with the twists and turns it took. Besides prefacing my following remarks by saying I did not read any other reviews before writing this, I also want to say that I was not opposed to most of the changes that were made to the canon in the Lord of the Rings trilogy films. I welcomed the addition of Arwen to the greater part of the story and the changes that were made to accommodate her. I thought most of the changes worked well. I am not a Canon-Or-Nothing fan.
I know it is a movie, which ultimately and necessarily needs to be different than the book, but, IMHO, DoS goes too far.
The opening scene of Gandalf’s meeting with Thorin at The Prancing Pony was a welcome addition to the film. (Peter’s overt cameo made me laugh.) I have been fascinated with the Quest for Erebor and how it explains the origins of the Dwarves’ journey, and it was fun to revisit the Pony. But the next scene left me scrambling to place where the company was and remember where the last film had left us off. We get no view of the Eagles’ eerie or even that famous Tolkien landmark The Carrock.
Mikael Persbrandt rocked Beorn, which somewhat surprised me after all the negative speculation about what he would look like. His voice and movements were incredible and really gave the character stature and an almost other-worldy quality, but our stay with Beorn is much too hurried. It was such a magical episode in the book, and I wanted the film to recapture that more. Having seen the sets for Beorn’s house in person at The Book of New Zealand, I know they are beautifully detailed, but the span we spend in the house is so short, we don’t get to appreciate them enough. Even one Dwarvish song or tale there would have done wonders for me.
Herein lies the reason why I think DoS deviates so much from the original story. Though I disagree, critics had complained that “An Unexpected Journey” was too slow, especially the beginning, and so Peter (or the studio) felt the need to add more action to speed things up. This left no time for lingering on some of the more magic moments from the original Hobbit. I missed Bombur falling in the stream in Mirkwood and the tense moment when the deer leaps overhead. (Though the plausibility of the Dwarves carrying him would have been questionable, I am not sure his antics in the barrels makes up for it.) But the Elven feasts and will-o’-the-wisp fires in the woods I sorely missed. The trippy scenes of the disoriented Dwarves were effective at explaining why they left the forest road but did not support the reason the Elves were unhappy with them. Thankfully, Bilbo was not robbed of his heroism in freeing the Dwarves from the spider webs. (My greatest grievance about the LotR movies was that Frodo was robbed of the strength he displayed at Weathertop and at the crossing of the Ford). How he gets to hear the spiders is great, lending weight and meaning to the Ring. As does the excellent moment of him struggling with his emotions attached to it. When he climbs above the treetops is one of my favorites in the film.
WETA once more creates a spectacular Elven realm, more haunting than I ever imagined, and this time the cameras did linger to give us time to catch our breath in awe. As to its inhabitants, Lee Pace brought Thranduil’s haughty, immortal nature to full fruition. He looked and sounded amazing. And I was thrilled to have Orlando back as Legolas, and to me, it makes perfect sense – I think his absence would have needed to be explained. And I like that we got to see more of his character revealed.
And then to Tauriel. I want to say that I welcomed her into the story from when she was first hinted at. Of course there would have been female warrior Elves. Tolkien just forgot to mention them in The Hobbit. With hundreds, even thousands of years to train, they would have been every bit as skilled as their male counterparts. Tauriel does not disappoint. Her fighting skills and mannerisms are great. I do not mind her interest in Kili (Hey, he’s one hot Dwarf!), but I wish that it had been left at curiosity and not grown so quickly into emotional attachment. The love triangle that is developing robs all three characters. But I relished when she was speaking to him of starlight. It was one of the moments of the film that gave me chills. Her musings opened up the story to the wider wonders of Tolkien’s universe and hinted at backstory.
Gandalf’s travails at Dol Guldur do this as well. And it works because there is not an exact description of what happens there in the Appendices. Though in my mind, the preview we saw of Gandalf at the High Fells with Radagast was scarier than what we actually saw in the film and scarier than what happens at Dol Goldur. The device of the flaming eye was cool, though the battle with Gandalf’s bubble of light perhaps drawn out too long without enough substantial interaction between Gandalf and Sauron, but it will help people who do not know the history to make the connection between the Necromancer and Sauron. But when we see Gandalf caged and the wargs and orcs massing below, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Orthanc.
Once again, I was so thankful that Bilbo was allowed to have his moment when he rescues the Dwarves from their cells and helps them escape. There had been rumors that Tauriel would help him do this, and I am glad they were unfounded. I minded not at all that the Dwarves were not sealed in the barrels, for where would the fun have been in that on-screen? And the Orc attack made sense given that we know they were being tracked all along, and it made for good action. I was dismayed that Kili was shot, but did not imagine at this point that it would bother me even more later in the film.
I liked Bard’s appearance and the assistance he offers the Dwarves, and the entire sequence from when he first meets them to getting them into his house felt true to the story and introduced Lake-town and its characters well. Luke Evans was well cast – grim but not unlikeable. The Lake-town set and how it was filmed truly brought it to life. It was more real and gritty than I envisioned it when originally reading the book, and it felt completely right. Stephen Fry is admirably sleazy as the Master and Ryan Gage was good as Alfrid, though in my mind, too reminiscent of Wormtongue. I wish the townspeople’s reactions to the return of the legend of the King Under the Mountain had been more enthusiastic. I would have liked to see more spirit and heard at least one of the songs that were sung about the Dwarves’ return. That way the contrast when Smaug attacks would have been even more poignant.
From here on out, I am not sure I can reconcile what I would have liked to happen with what did. I can not believe that the four Dwarves would be willing to be left behind in Lake-town under any circumstances. It especially did not ring true to me since it just seemed like an excuse to show Kili and Tauriel’s growing romance. The Orc invasion into Lake-town and the arrival of Legolas and Tauriel felt out-of-place. Though I understand the sequential logic and the opportunity to let Legolas display some pretty epic fighting, it will rob the moment of surprise when the bad guys show up at the Battle of Five Armies. But when Tauriel takes on the role of healer… when she goes into Elvish trance talk and begins to glow JUST LIKE ARWEN…. I actually threw my hands up in the theater. The manner in which it was shown felt too similar to how Arwen was portrayed, diminishing both Elves. Throughout DoS, I felt the film was often riffing off LotR. I am not sure if it was meant to be an inside joke, but to me, it just seemed repetitive.
As the remaining Dwarves continue on, the discovery of the stairs was like a bludgeon to the head. I think it was meant to feel epic, and I hope it does the next time I see it, but at the first viewing it just seemed so obvious that they all should have seen it. Gone the nail-biting climb across the narrow ledge and the hauling up of supplies. This felt more like an afternoon jaunt than the final stretch of the quest. I hardly minded that it was the moon and not the sun that lit the keyhole. It even makes more sense and was more mystical, especially since the runes could only be read by the light of the moon. This was another place in the film that sent chills up my spine.
Bilbo’s entrance into the cave started off well. The shifting, endless mountains of gold and the way they sounded were stupendous. His first nuanced realization of Smaug was wonderful. But once he takes off the Ring, I started to question what was happening. Now that Smaug can see him, why doesn’t he kill him? OK, so he’s toying with him. I guess I can believe that. The way Smaug looks and sounds and moves is spectacular. BEST. DRAGON. EVER! I love how his belly starts to glow before he is going to breath fire. I did miss the jewels on his belly, though a plausible explanation was given of why he had the unprotected spot on his breast – that a black arrow had previously pierced him and a piece lodged there. Yet this may detract from Bard’s heroic take-down of him. (If this is indeed what happens.)
From here on out, all Mordor breaks loose. I could have accepted the Dwarves encounter with Smaug. I could have lived with them being chased through the halls of Erebor. But what made me cry out upon leaving the theater “I want a do-over!” was the Indiana Jones escapade that they were taken on. Not only was it completely outrageous, but it was confusing and unbelievable. Start the forges? What? Melt millions of gallons of gold in minutes? What? Stand on the nose of Smaug “Oh, greatest of calamities!” and not get eaten? WHAT!!?!?!?!????! And all the while, they are missing four Dwarves who might have made the action sequence more plausible and added some lightheartedness.
There were only two moments in the whole sequence that really worked for me: When Bilbo enters what I think Thorin calls “The Hall of Kings”; the contrast of little Bilbo lost in its vastness was an awe-filled pause. And the sight of Smaug bursting into the sky shaking off rivulets of gold was glorious. But I would have traded that image’s weight in gold to have just seen him spout fire into the night sky.
The critics of “The Unexpected Journey” wanted more action. They got it. The studio wanted better reviews. They’ll get them from the critics. I have heard speculation that the sequence in the mountain was a time filler which came about when two movies were made into three. But from this Tolkien fan’s perspective, there were better ways the time could have been filled.
Having written out all my thoughts and calmed down a bit, I’m sure the epic, tumbling pace of the film will grow on me. I have my doubts that the escapade inside the mountain will ever truly find its way into my heart, but I am looking forward to seeing Desolation again. Now that I know what happens, I’ll be able to focus on the incredible magic all their own that Peter Jackson and WETA always create.
Well, I saw “Desolation of Smaug” again last night. Over my initial shock, I went in telling myself to keep an open mind, sit back, relax and enjoy. And I really did. Because the vision of Middle-earth that Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor, WETA and all the crew bring to the screen blows me away. And somehow I have to accept the changes they made to the original story in order to be privileged to step into that incredibly detailed and vast world.
Many of the things that bothered me the first viewing seemed now to fit into the overall story. Granted, the overall story is not Tolkien’s story exactly. The story I am talking about is the one that began in “An Unexpected Journey”. And that story, I already agreed to go along for the ride on.
To detail some of the things that seemed less bothersome to me on the second viewing:
Perhaps Beorn is standing on the Carrock when he first appears, it’s just different than I envisioned it. And we definitely spend enough time in his house to linger on the amazing details. The changes to the barrel ride are a crowd-pleaser for sure. Bombur gets the biggest laugh in the film. Plus, all that white water looks amazing in 3D HFR. Dol Guldur felt much scarier to me this time – I even jumped in my seat, and the people I was with who had seen LotR were still asking me to explain the shape inside of Sauron’s Eye and why it was at Dol Guldur. Even though it seemed very over-the-top to me. This time the shiver I got was when the people of Lake-town realize who Thorin is. The Dwarves final trek up to Erebor seemed more epic on the second viewing. I got misty-eyed when Thorin and Balin first step into the mountain.
Most of the pieces fell into place, and in places the story is richer than the book which is more descriptive in a general sense than delving into character development. But how can you have a movie without strong characters? Perhaps now I see why the writers felt the need for changes to bring those characters to life.
I still am not happy with how the love triangle was portrayed. Nor am I completely OK with how unbelievable some of the action inside the Lonely Mountain is. But Smaug is absolutely and undeniably stupendous, and getting to spend that extra time with him is almost worth it. BEST. DRAGON. EVER!!!
And I think I’ll leave it there because I could pick DoS apart ad infinitum, or I can just sit back and enjoy the ride. I think I’ll do the later.