Howdy everyone, Fenrir here with a ramble about the much anticipated (at least to me) second film in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. Yep, tonight we’ll be talking about The Desolation of Smaug, roaring in as a weekend box-office smash. But, does it suffer from “second film” growing pains? Or, is Smaug perhaps the answer to some complaints that made most critics find An Unexpected Journey “weak” and “sluggish”?
Read on for a bit of a ramble as we make the last trek across Arda and finally reach the Lonely Mountain! (But there’s still no closure in sight)
Picking up directly where An Unexpected Journey left off, we’re back with Thorin Oakenshield and Company as they make the last leg of their journey, braving an encroaching Orc army, wary and suspicious men, oh and Elves. Yuck.
( Ishkhaqwi ai durugnul! ) We also meet (a) skin-changer(s) and giant spiders, dashing hero types, get some history, oh and finally explain where Gandalf ran off to for about the second half of the book.
But if book purists were irked at some director changes Jackson made to An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Canon might not necessarily be the adaptation of the text anyone was expecting…But that necessarily isn’t a bad thing, per se.
There are plenty of good and interesting things to come out of this second movie and its filler arc to lead up to the dramatic conclusion of the third movie. Much like an Unexpected Journey, we are given moments of character development that make these characters characters instead of mouthpieces. Sadly there is less of the lovely dwarf banter that made the thirteen dwarves so rambunctiously charming in the first one, but there are individual moments that shine through in terms of making living, breathing heroes to root for.
Bilbo Baggins is no ordinary hobbit after his travels–and he’s especially not the typical hobbit after using his precious new ring. Unlike Frodo, Bilbo has none of the knowledge about this particular trinket, and if there’s one thing to applaud Martin Freeman for, it’s for demonstrating the destructive power of the One Ring and the way it can change a person (not for the better). Similar to Martin Freeman’s take on an ever-changing Bilbo Baggins, Richard Armitage is particularly brilliant with his take on Thorin–and for making a particularly unsympathetic character in Tolkien’s novels and giving him such charm and charisma that endears him to the audience, which of course leads up to the much-anticipated fallout that will be in the third movie. And Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman gave some much needed insight into the stakes at hand for Thorin’s quest, which helpfully puts this urgency to reach Erebor a political, socioeconomic risk that was obviously unexplored by Tolkien–but then again, that is the beauty of an adaptation. (And one of few additions that I think gave the film depth haha.)
Like any Peter Jackson movie, this film doubles as a wonderful visual guide to not only a lusciously imagined Middle Earth but some pretty nice sweeps of New Zealand scenery. The grand landscapes are buffered by the amazing architecture–and yes, while Rivendell is gorgeous and all that I was very, very much impressed with Thranduil’s Woodland Realm and our first glimpse inside of Erebor. There’s much kudos to be had for these stunning sets; the team over at WETA did a phenomenal job that pushed the boundaries with these distinct kingdoms that contrast to all the Man castles and fortresses we’re more used to.
Annnd while we’re on the topic of visuals…We all joked about how our first glimpse of Smaug in that trailer way-back-when was just so anti-climatic and unexciting. After seeing the film, I for one am very, very pleased with the art direction on Smaug and think he looks impressive–if not magnificent. He’s brought to life with Benedict Cumberbatch’s voiceover, going less arrogant and boastful as seen in the beloved Rankin Bass adaptation, to something that is very much his own take on our favorite Wyrm. His Smaug is a little more sly and cunning; he knows how to hurt without having to rain down fire–although I will have to say the sleepy old drake isn’t as threatening as the Smaug of my childhood if he can be outsmarted by a few (rather) thick dwarves and a hobbit.
Still, not only do we have some stellar moments of character development and visuals, but we also have a bit of improvement in terms of action sequences. There were plenty of complaints about the lack of action in An Unexpected Journey, and also complaints that the fights were just hard to understand. You know, a very CLAMP-like mess of bodies hurtling at each other and swinging, sweeping shots?
Desolation fixed that a bit, with plenty of action that was easier to follow and clearer too. There was many a cheer in my movie theater for the hack-n-slash and the flying arrows, and yes even the trick shots were met with much applause. However, I think that the action, while infinitely better visually, helped drag the movie.
And if there was one thing that just made Desolation weak, it was that drag.
Yes, we’re walking into a Peter Jackson movie, a movie with a director notoriously bad about editing, but this is one of Desolation’s major, jarring weaknesses in my humble opinion. There is such an unfortunate thing as too much action, too much unnecessary, overdone fight scene after fight scene that just makes a film terribly long. Multiple POVs with three different chances to have an action scene is just too much–while critics might have harped on Unexpected Journey for its sluggish moments of character banter, I think that those charming bits were central to making a whole pack of characters charming and endearing–not so much when every other scene involves said characters lost in a muddle of hack-n-slash.
Which kind of leads up to another major weak link for this movie: Elves. Yes, yes, it is very, very important to have an Orlando Bloom cameo, but I think there is something wrong when we go from The Hobbit to the moping and gripes of the Mirkwood elves, who were but a chapter or so in the grand scheme of things. With Legolas’s cold cameo taking up a good portion of the film–oh and those fight sequences–it’s kind of unfortunate that our would-be heroes are tossed to the wayside in favor of adding some bitter elf drama. I mean, okay, I get it, it kind of maybe foreshadows the beloved Legolas x Gimli friendship of The Lord of the Rings, but I think we’ve had enough of elves for a long while: stick to your dwarves and limit yourself to only two perspectives (more explanation for what’s going on in Dol Goldur maybe?). No elf drama please.
Speaking of elf drama–there is one adaptation addition that will perhaps be forever debated on, and that is the presence of one feisty and beautiful guard captain, Tauriel. I for one appreciate her, and I think Evangeline Lilly did a fun job with the character. Adding a female character in this admittedly middle-aged road trip was a nice touch…But if you’re going to write a romance, don’t take cues from the writers of Once Upon a Time. As endearingly adorable as it is to have an elf fall in love with a dwarf and vice versa, in the grand scheme of focus and drag, I think it was a subplot that could have been sacrificed. Or at least, I don’t know, set down the foundations for something, and then follow it up in the third movie so we can use that time to focus on more pressing matters?
Overall, while Desolation has its highlights, it does suffer from sitting in as filler, as that gap between the wonder and whimsy of the first film and the impending conclusion of the third film. In trying to get us from point A to point B we’re taken on a ramble that tries so very, very hard to cover all the bases. You wanted action? Well we’ve got PLENTY of action. You want to know what Gandalf was doing? Well we’re going to meander over there. Need some more back-story on the dwarf-elf feud? Let’s go wander over here and throw in a budding romance to complicate the matters!
I think in the long-run it’s the fact that Desolation is a ramble, moreso than a steady march of plot points, that makes it one of Jackson’s weaker films in his long resume of LOTR material. But it gets its job done, so that by the end of the film we are where we need to be (finally), leaving us wondering how the third movie will end this trilogy.
– Character development – Again much applause to the actors–particularly Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage–for giving such life to Tolkien’s moral-of-the-story mouthpieces.
– Sets and visuals – If there is one thing that Peter Jackson and crew will always get right, it’s making Middle Earth a lovely fascinating place from its tallest mountains to its wooded realms. Bonus points for nice Smaug design and for spiders creeping out people in the audience.
– Fight choreography – Gone are the dizzying cameras that made watching Thorin and company bustle and blunder a bit hard to watch. Now we can see what’s going on, and let’s be honest, we all cheer for the trick shots. And for even those lovely moments where some dwarves who don’t have speaking roles
poor Stephen Hunter and Bombur get to be epic in their own right.
– Multiple POVs– It’s nifty and fun to see who’s doing what, going around to see what that scamp Gandalf is doing, having moments with our Orc buddy Azog, Kili’s bad flirting attempts etc. etc. But if there is one thing that Peter Jackson is notoriously bad for it is that drag that was unfortunately exacerbated by these POV switches, some even abruptly in the midst of a good scene!
– Too much action, less reaction – Thorin and company are in fight or flight mode, we get that; however, when every other scene is punctuated by a brawl–whether with Orcs or with men or whatever–those flashy moments of intense fighting become tiring. At least streamline the action–quicker, dirtier skirmishes rather than drawn-0ut sequences.
– Soundtrack – I didn’t talk about the soundtrack this time around because it seemed to not be there. Far Over the Misty Mountains was an amazing theme that carried throughout An Unexpected Journey, and I find that Desolation lacks a central song that could have made for a chilling, resonating theme.
So overall, what’s the final verdict?
There are snippets that are good, plenty pacing issues that I think are just bad, but if you are looking for a fantasy romp through Middle Earth it probably won’t disappoint. Still, have a snack or two at the ready, just in case the rambling gets to be a bit too much.