You’ve almost certainly visited Emil Johannson’s LOTRProject website at some point or another, whether to pore over his Middle-earth genealogy page, view the historical timeline of Middle-earth or try out his recent “Which Hobbit character are you?” quiz.
We asked Emil if he’d like to write a few words collecting his own thoughts on Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Here is his review of the film.
If you’re still to see the film and are avoiding spoilers, please be aware that there are spoilers throughout.
The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug review: It is no longer Tolkien’s Middle-earth
The screen went black. The Desolation of Smaug had ended and I was left in the darkness of the cinema with a mix of emotions and thoughts in my head. It had been an entertaining and breathtaking two and half hours. They had essentially consisted of one single long action scene set in some truly spectacular locations. Martin Freeman had once again proved his worth as Bilbo Baggins, his subtle humor and incredible timing perfect for the role.
Smaug had been more stupendous than I could have ever imagined. But, and unfortunately it is a big but, I quickly realized it was not an adaption of the Hobbit I had watched. It was just something very loosely based on the Hobbit.
The Desolation of Smaug has received significantly better early reviews than An Unexpected Journey. This is likely because this movie doesn’t suffer from the same issues the first installment did. Focus is not on HFR anymore, time consuming character introductions have already been made and we get to see previously unseen parts of Middle-earth as opposed to locations which were also in the Lord of the Rings movies. The scenery and locations is as you would expect both breathtaking and well-crafted. I loved how they had captured the wickedness of Mirkwood and the hopelessness the characters must feel. And Lake-town looked absolutely marvelous! John Howe and Alan Lee have once again proven their excellence as conceptual artists.
The Desolation of Smaug borrows a lot of the storyline from the Appendices of the Lord of the Rings and a lot of interpretations have been made for the sake of fleshing out the story. I am okay with this and I acknowledge that film is a different medium and requires adapting of the story. However, it is important to distinguish between doing an interpretation and making significant changes to the plot and back-story.
I accepted the addition of Azog in An Unexpected Journey thinking that would probably be as far away from the source material they would go throughout the trilogy. Maybe his addition was a necessary evil (pun intended). However, the Desolation of Smaug does not make any attempt at honoring the source material and by the end of the movie it no longer feels like Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
The biggest concern among fans has been with the introduction of the elf Tauriel. She is not the problem (or at least a very small one) and definitely not because she is a woman. Sure, Legolas and Tauriel may distract the audience away from the main plot, and I am not a fan of the love story surrounding Tauriel, but I don’t see a problem with the addition of Tauriel as a new character in itself. But honestly, if you’re going to add a strong female character, why do you HAVE to put her in a generic romantic subplot?
A bigger problem is instead how Azog is essentially chasing Thorin & Co. throughout the entire movie. He turns up everywhere. Then, when I almost thought he would stop chasing after them Peter Jackson replaced him with another antagonist, Bolg. Who came up with the idea to add yet another important character into a trilogy which has too many already? Even worse is the idea that the Witch-king was buried after the fall of Angmar. If he was, when was Glorfindel supposed to make his prophecy: “Do not pursue him! He will not return to these lands. Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.”
Then in Laketown, Kili is left behind due to an injury, likely to facilitate more of the previously mentioned romantic subplot. When Thorin & Co. arrives at Erebor they try to destroy Smaug themselves and they are chased through the tunnels of the mountain. They make an attempt to end his life by filling a template for a gigantic dwarf statue with molten gold and exploding it on him. The thought of that happening in the same Middle-earth as in the Lord of the Rings movies is just ridiculous. I could go on, but do I really need to?
In many ways the movie could be seen as a two and a half hour showreel for WETA Digital and, to be honest, they have definitely done a masterful job with some of the special effects. However, the movie relies too heavily on CGI overall which makes everything look fabricated. It is just too much. The whole movie is essentially one long chase and we get to see action scenes every ten minutes. Some of them, particularly those including the elves, are outright ridiculous and looks like they are taken directly out of a video-game.
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The dragon. Two hours into the movie, Smaug appears and he is even more majestic than I thought possible. I must say I had my doubts about his appearance when I saw parts of him in the trailer, but I was pleasantly surprised. And what a voice! The dialogue between Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman was definitely the best part of the movie. Despite having a lengthy dialogue with Smaug, I can not help feeling that the protagonist, Bilbo, is not focused on enough.
Too much action and too many subplots distract from what should be important. I am also very sad to see that Beorn only got four minutes of screen time. Especially since Gandalf and Radagast went on a pretty pointless journey to the tombs of the Nazgûl, which should not exist in the first place.
The Desolation of Smaug has a few really great moments, most of which includes Martin Freeman, and as an action flick I am sure this movie will appeal to a lot of people. However, for me that is all it will ever be. An action flick. The Avengers merged with Middle-earth and something to satisfy our need for more high fantasy. There are hints of what could have been not only a really wonderful celebration of Tolkien’s Middle-earth but also a better movie. A movie focused on character development and story, with fewer subplots and less special effects fueled action.
Emil Johansson is the creator of LOTRProject, an effort dedicated to bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s works to life on the web. It is perhaps most known for the extensive and ever updating genealogy, the historical timeline of Middle-Earth and the statistics of the population of Middle-Earth.