Editor Note: Our latest staff review comes from staffer Ostadan… who himself calls this a “grouchy non-review” of ‘The Desolation of Smaug’. So you may want to take that as a word of warning or proceed to read with glee! This review also contains major SPOILERS. If you are avoiding spoilers of any type, please click away now!
I give up; I can’t review this thing coherently. Gene Siskel said that as a critic you should fight the temptation to write about what the film should have been about or obsess on the way you wish the characters would have responded in an ideal world. Review the movie that’s there, Siskel insisted. Not the movie you wish they would have made.
And I wish Jackson had made an adaptation of The Hobbit that was at least as close to the source material as the Rankin-Bass cartoon. Instead, he made a Hollywood Blockbuster; it reminded me of Tim Kirk’s cartoon in ‘Mythlore’ issue #1, illustrating an article about what a movie of LotR might be like. A director is explaining, “OK — After Steve Reeves and his vikings rescue you from the forest outlaws, you set out to rescue the princess from Sauron, who’s holding her for ransom.” When I explain the last half hour as, “While Thorin and the other dwarves are fighting Smaug by melting huge amounts of gold, back in Laketown Fili and Kili are rescued from Bolg and his band of Orcs by Legolas and Tauriel, who uses athelas to heal Kili’s poisoned wound. Meanwhile, Gandalf has a magical battle with the Necromancer and is caged in Dol Guldur,” I feel like I’m in Tim Kirk’s cartoon; and that is without even mentioning the Kili/Tauriel sorta-romance.
It’s not Tolkien. It’s not even an extension of Tolkien, it’s a downright contradiction to fundamental aspects of Tolkien’s world, not merely world building details. Whatever happened to the Istari who were forbidden to match Sauron’s power with power? For that matter, whatever happened to hobbits who were unexpectedly resistant to the corrupting power of the ring? After wearing the Ring twice, Bilbo is already going into ‘mine!’ (precious) mode. After sixty years, what will he be like? (The real explanation seems to be that Bilbo needs to be reluctant to wear the Ring, so that there’s an excuse for him to take it off improbably, since we’ve got this established ‘ring world’ visual that would not sustain well in Smaug’s lair; by contrast, he’s just fine wearing it at length in Thranduil’s palace.)
So, there is no point to reviewing this film as an adaptation. That’s not the movie that’s there, disappointing as that may be. This has to be reviewed as a Hollywood blockbuster, and I am not particularly an expert in such things. Nevertheless, as long as you insist on reading this anyway…
There are a lot of things that keep it from being immersive for me, starting with the really cheesy 3D in-your-face bumblebees at the beginning of the film. (come on, what year is this? “Coming at Ya” was 1981) Please, don’t remind me that I am watching a movie. When I saw ‘Iron Man’, when Tony Stark tried out the flight rockets in the lab and was smacked into the wall without injury, I was ‘taken out’ of the film experience. Unfortunately, there were too many moments like that here. The following are random observations that explain why I’m kinda grumpy about DoS.
There are certainly more than a few times that I was distracted by plot points that make little sense, even on Jackson’s terms. The tag-team pursuit of the dwarves by orcs is particularly clumsy and unbelievable. Bolg catches up with Azog (somehow) and they BOTH divert to Dol Guldur, where the Necromancer appoints Azog as his general, and then Azog sends Bolg back to pursue Thorin and company. And bless ’em, they find the dwarves – and where are they looking? On the downstream side of Thranduil’s realm. Damn, these trackers are good! Just imagine: Bolg knew that Thorin was detained by Thranduil. But then, Azog had managed to track them across the Misty Mountains somehow in the first film, and even being carried some distance by the Eagles didn’t put him off their tail, so I guess Thorin’s carrying a GPS transponder. Of course, the orcs know Thorin’s final destination anyway, but for some reason never do anything to head them off at Laketown or ambush them at Dale or… oh never mind. What is the point of switching Azog out for Bolg, again?
As in the previous film, Jackson’s ability to convey (or understand) matters of time and distance is extremely limited, and sometimes distracting; we are not even given visual cues to the changing seasons until it is suddenly winter in Laketown (Thranduil’s crown of fall leaves from the book does not appear here). The tag-team Orc handoff is one example of time compression; Gandalf’s ride to the ‘High Fells of Rhudaur’ (presumably back across the Misty Mountains) and then back again to Dol Guldur is another. I hope Gandalf’s horse got home to Beorn OK; I think the wizards are riding the bunny sled back from the high fells. Expect the arrival of Dain and other dwarves to be similarly mystery-timed in the next film.
Thorin is an idiot. I mean, these dwarf guys are basically merchants, and here’s expert negotiator Thorin with Thranduil. “I’ll let you go free on a promise of the return of our own treasure from Smaug’s hoard.” “I can’t trust you!” Thranduil is an idiot. His reply should have been, “Spider poison has rattled your brains. I am not asking you to trust me, stupid nogoth! I am not even asking for a hostage for surety of your promise as any sensible king would do!” Thorin is not just being proud; he is being stupid. Thranduil is stupid too, but he has the luxury of holding the keys.
The spider scene was pretty good, though I have begun to weary of Jackson’ constant vertiginous drops. But the spider speech was, in the end, disappointing. Bilbo (and we) only learned that the spiders wanted to feed (duh), and that his sword hurt them (duh). Instead of ‘I shall call you Sting’, Bilbo gets that word from a spider, and just shrugs and says that it’s a good name. This should have been one of Bilbo’s high points as the nominal hero of the story. But it has been undercut by his using Sting to attempt to rescue Thorin in the previous film, and so the moment goes flat. Note that the ‘Eagles are Coming’ moment in the battle of the five armies will almost certainly go flat for similar reasons. Rather than being a eucatastrophic moment in which the heroes are rescued from certain defeat by an unexpected and unlooked-for joyous turn, we’ll have Gandalf whistling for the Eagles again with a convenient moth (does anyone still doubt this?), telegraphing their arrival in advance. Bless me, what do they teach them in film school nowadays?
Bard tells Bilbo about Smaug’s weak point, not the other way around. Bilbo seeing the weak spot for himself is therefore inconsequential, except as an unnecessary reminder and confirmation to the audience. No ravens need apply.
Jackson could not resist a toilet joke; admittedly, the small fry in the audience seemed to like it. Of course, we must consequently infer that the entire population of Laketown fills the lake with raw sewage on a daily basis.
When Bard gets the Black Harpoon, sorry, Arrow, Alfrid and his security cronies (who are remarkably oblivious to the arrival of a band of warg-riding orcs and a pair of elves) pursue and arrest him. Why? The original motivation was that Bard was fomenting revolution against the Master of Laketown; but that revolution was successfully quelled with Thorin’s appearance. Even Alfrid can’t explain. By the way, I was pleasantly surprised by Stephen Fry’s turn as the Master of Laketown. I could easily forget that I was watching Stephen Fry, which is often difficult to do with high-profile guest stars.
Galadriel’s telepathic cellphone seems to work only one way. Gandalf sends Radagast with a message rather than just magically contacting her. Jackson will spend time giving us an otiose explanation of Beorn’s back story, but leaves things mysterious when, well, they make no sense (Galadriel’s disappearance in the first film is another example. And Thranduil’s magical disappearing scars, there for shock value, but again making no sense from a storytelling standpoint).
Why does Smaug repeatedly refer to Thorin as ‘Oakenshield’, a name acquired long after he left Erebor? Has Smaug been reading the New Orc Times?
Thranduil doesn’t like hand-rails any more than Elrond.
The barrel escape was good, and Bilbo’s realization that he had no obvious escape was delightful. The whole sequence was marred by increasingly improbable action, though. Which leads me to…
Superhero elves. I have a friend who, I predict, will love Legolas and Tauriel’s fight scenes. He will say something on his YouTube channel like, “In this film, Legolas is a bad ass!! He and this new character Tauriel are just kicking orc butt left and right! It’s awesome!” My friend is a comic book fan. Look, Legolas’s stair-surfing and oliphant-slaying in the LotR films were over the top (and criticized at the time) but were only a small portion of the actions in which they took place. Here, he and Tauriel are at the center of the action, and constantly doing this stuff, A little goes a long way, and to me it just feels cheesy, more like a comic-book film than a fantasy set in a supposedly real world. Are we really going to have an army of Thranduil’s elves who all fight like this?
Turning Tauriel into Arwen doesn’t help.
Big fight scenes or battle scenes are like the fantasy-film equivalent of car chases and explosions. They have their place (and are kind of obligatory), but it is too common to overdo them.
Doesn’t Gandalf already know that the Necromancer is Sauron? He seems to tell Radagast so (only Sauron can summon the Nazgûl). So just what does he intend to accomplish in Dol Guldur? By himself? “It is certainly a trap.” Well, then, what’s the point of going in there? Again, we get a comic-book confrontation, like fans asking, “If Sauron battled Gandalf, who’d win?” Putting Sauron/the Necromancer on stage, with melodramatic dialogue, once agains cheapens the character.
Waste of a bloody brilliant dragon, if you ask me. From the purely technical standpoint, Smaug was the unquestioned ‘star’ at the film. Much of Bilbo’s dialogue with Smaug was retained, pleasingly (but Jackson or Bilbo should look up ‘enormity’).
My reaction to the whole is, “Well, it’s OK. Maybe on a par with Man of Steel or Iron Man. But nothing special; we’ve seen it all before.”
PS. Rereading this, it may seem that I am being fault-finding and negative. I really did find the film OK on the whole. I have taken for granted that everyone knows that Jackson does immensely well with art direction, scenery, and so on. And by and large, these continue to be excellent in the present film (though there are some CGI lapses in technique that are actually rather surprising). Generally, the craftsmanship and cinematography are excellent. As always.