Review of The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug

by | Dec 17, 2013 | Reviews | 7 comments

Hobbit: Deolation of Smaug Review

I’d heard the rumors, knew the casting of Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly. I had watched the trailer and seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I knew that there weren’t three movies worth of material in Tolkien’s quaint little children’s book. But … wow.

Just a warning: from this point onward I may spoil a thing or two. I’ll keep it to a minimum, but I’m going to take for granted that anyone reading online reviews is going to be at least passingly familiar with the original Hobbit. If you are wary of spoilers, don’t venture below the trailer.

See? Legolas even headlines the trailer!

I would say that as far as remaining true to source material, The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug would rank similar to Dune. But whereas Dune had too much book to cram into a movie (as did the 1977 animated version of the Hobbit that many of us grew up watching), The Desolation of Smaug has too much movie for the bit of book rattling around in it. Just like in Jurassic Park, when they needed to patch in bits of amphibian DNA to fill in the missing pieces, so too did Peter Jackson swing far afield in his quest to stretch The Hobbit into three movies. While I don’t mind pulling in other Tolkien works, there was more to it than that. It felt to me like Jackson signed on for The Hobbit, then suddenly realized that it wasn’t a blockbuster action movie. He set about fixing that.

Thus did The Desolation of Smaug become The Adventure of Legolas and Tauriel. “Who?” you might ask. Tauriel. She was always there, I assure you, but no one had seen fit to give her a name until this movie. In truth, the scriptwriters for Hobbit 2: the Adventure of Legolas and Tauriel made her up. She’s like a redheaded Legolas — an elf guard captain who is deadly with both bow and blade (somewhere in Hobbit 3, I hope we learn where Legolas loses all his bladed weapons). She’s actually one of the bright spots, and if you’re neither looking for a purist’s approach to Tolkien’s work nor a faithful adaptation of The Hobbit (which I think everyone wrote off at the first mention of a trilogy), she’s a great character. Galadriel was always too fey, too ancient to be a proper role model for a relatable feminine hero. Tauriel is a match for any of the boys.

Gandalf’s side quest seems like it was filmed as his doctor’s note for why he ditches Bilbo and the Dwarfs:

“Dear Thorin, please excuse Gandalf the Grey for the week leading up to Durin’s Day because he is discovering ancient evils reawakening.”

On the one hand, it seems ill-fit to the main plot, at best irrelevant, and at worst overshadowing it entirely. If a great darkness is coming over the land, how petty is the quest of a handful of dwarfs to reclaim their homeland? On the other hand, the scenes themselves were stunning, both visually and in epic scope. I think Gandalf used more magic in this movie than in the three movies of the Lord of the Rings combined. All told though, Gandalf takes up little screen time in this episode.

A bigger departure from the Hobbit is the whole Laketown adventure. There is quite the diversion in the city, and not all of Thorin’s band end up leaving. I was waiting right up until they were officially Not Going for some quirky, slapstick trick to get them all onto boats and heading off to the Lonely Mountain together. That would have seemed in keeping with the narrative up to that point. Apparently what lay ahead required a smaller team of dwarfs.

Ah, the Lonely Mountain. Erebor. This is where Bilbo sneaks in invisibly, has a bit of conversation with Smaug, and high-tails it for the … wait, WHAT? OK, once you get to the Lonely Mountain, you can toss the rest of the book in a blender. You’ll still see bits of it spinning around in shreds — dialogue, mostly — but everything else is an unrecognizable mess. I’ve played some World of Warcraft in my day, and I think Peter Jackson may have, too. Once Bilbo’s little quest goes off the rails, you can almost picture hit-point bars everywhere and names over the characters’ heads. Given all that transpires, the fact that ANY of them survive is ludicrous, let alone all of them. Smaug, for all his CGI-rendered magnificence, comes across as cartoonishly incompetent in that failing. One lone burglar, wearing the One Ring, barely escaping with his life was heroic. I didn’t count how many actually made the trip to Erebor, but call it 8 or 9 dwarfs and a hobbit all dodging fire and body parts for that long? Balderdash!

You may take it from all the above that I didn’t like or enjoy the movie. Very much the contrary. It was a highly enjoyable movie. It was, however, really not The Hobbit in any accepted form. The Hobbit was Bilbo’s story! It showed how one tiny hobbit, badgered into joining the expedition, ends up being the key to their success. This “Hobbit” elbows Bilbo out of the way to make room for some flashy elves who can turn it into a proper action movie.

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  1. Janet Aldrich

    Re: Your last para — that’s how I felt about LOTR; immense frustration that the point of the books got lost in Peter Jackson’s ego. The minute I saw Merry and Pippin as Hobbit equivalents of Fred and George Weasley, he lost me. Don’t get me wrong — as movies, pretending the books don’t exist, they work. But the books do exist, and I hate what Jackson did to them. Sigh. End of rant.

    p.s. I LOLed at your “doctor’s excuse” for Gandalf. I’m rereading the book now, and will have to see where Gandalf went …

    • J.S. Morin

      Lord of the Rings didn’t seem too egregious to me. You had the plot points, the characters, the setting … everything seemed appropriate. Sure, things got spiced up for the big screen, but you knew the movie you were watching. Even in the extended addition, the main complaints were of omission (Tom Bombadil, the Sourging of the Shire). For the Hobbit movies, Jackson treated the book like an outline, or a rough draft, to be cut up, altered, and added to in order to fit a different vision: Hobbit as prequel.

  2. Isaiah T. S.

    Nice review. I enjoyed your bit of humor. Did you like Desolation of Smaug better than an Unexpected Journey? I haven’t read the books myself.

    • J.S. Morin

      I think Unexpected Journey stayed closer to the source material (by a wide margin), but the second was more of a blockbuster action movie than a fantasy tale. I think both included a bit more swashbuckling fighting than was required for the plot. Desolation of Smaug got a little ridiculous in places.

      • Isaiah T. S.

        I see. What about the part where all the spiders invade Myrkwood? That was pretty cool. Did that happen in the book? And is that where Shelob came from?

  3. Tracy Falbe

    I very much agree with your review. Although I enjoyed the movie it was not as good as the first one. All the ridiculous nonsense with the dwarves and dragon in the mountain left me rolling my eyes. I also missed the focus on Bilbo. The Hobbit is about Bilbo and Bilbo is likable so give me Bilbo.

    Now I will say that I liked the extra elf stuff with Thranduil (did I spell that right?) and Legolas and even Tauriel. I liked the alternative view of Legolas on board with his elf daddy’s hard hearted regime. He was less hero and more amoral homeland security captain. And the king of the wood elves was cool. I loved that moment when his illusion flickered and revealed the extent of his scars from battling dragons in the past.

    I also liked the Gandalf action on his side trip to the haunted tower, but it was a rather forced side plot.

    Overall the Desolation of Smaug made me want to read the Hobbit again. It’s been about 30 years, and I’d like to relive a proper encounter between Bilbo and Smaug, not the cartoonish nonsense in the movie. There’s no way any of those dwarves would have survived, not even if Smaug was blind and suffering from the flu.

    • J.S. Morin

      Isn’t it a bit weird when a movie makes you miss the book? I mean, who came out of that movie thinking they had seen the same story that’s in The Hobbit?


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