Not Exactly Hatin' on Desolation of Smaug

I’m not usually a fangirl—I don’t think I even have the physical capacity to actually squee. But yes, I will have to concur, the combined efforts of the sound designers on The Desolation of Smaug and Benedict Cumberbatch created easily the best dragon voice EVER. I dare you to try to show me one better. In terms of design, mannerisms, and animation, Smaug was definitely the crowning achievement of Peter Jackson’s continued cinematic interpretation of The Hobbit.

For me, however, much of the rest of the movie was just OK. It pains me to say that, but I keep thinking back, trying to determine if I was just addled from slogging our way to the theater through driving snow, or from the unthinkable--actually having to get up and use the restroom during the movie. (This has NEVER happened to me in two decades of independent moviegoing. I must be getting old.) But no, it just turns out that tDoS did not strike the chord with me that any of the Lord of the Rings movies did.

Maybe it’s the fact that Peter Jackson has managed to already hit most of the resonant notes in our hearts—we’ve seen and breathed his cinematic interpretation of Middle Earth enough now that the wonder of seeing it brought to life is growing familiar, and now the characters bear more burden to carry us along. Bilbo, Smaug, and Thorin managed to shoulder that load with reasonable deftness—but as for the rest of the ensemble, to whom considerable time was dedicated: they failed to enchant with even a fraction of the charm of Merry or Pippin, or instill wonder like Elrond.

Being the lover of elves that I am, you would think I couldn’t get enough of the Mirkwood clan, but I felt no connection to any of them. Well, Thranduil was pretty easy to dislike, if that’s a connection. He felt like a weird hybrid of Lestat and Lucius Malfoy to me. Even if the sylvan elves are “less wise” than their Eldarin brethren, the level of Thranduil’s pettiness and disdain felt untempered by centuries of experience. Many reviewers have already complained about his rash treatment of a certain prisoner, and I’d have to say I agree.

Legolas is a dimensionless fighting machine, and Tauriel’s character seemed to ping-pong between conflicted bewilderment with herself to tough-girl, and I guess, since I wasn’t even sure Jackson needed their characters involved in the first place, I was hesitant to believe in their stories. I honestly think it would have been more satisfying if Legolas had simply made a cameo in these films. All Middle-Earth fans get that Legolas would have been around someplace when Bilbo and the gang blundered into Thanduil’s realm. Why not spend time focusing on Thranduil and making him a character with more comprehensible motivations to tie him to the later Battle of Five Armies? We don’t need a bunch of close up decapitations and trick shots performed by Orlando Bloom for the elves of this story to work.

I’m withholding judgment of what may or may not become of Tauriel’s choice to help out Kili in his regrettable situation—maybe that will weave into the third film in a satisfying way.(I refuse to even address the romance thread.) For now, that whole situation feels like a set-up for a Movie 3 situation I couldn’t see from my theater seat. I’m generally hoping the split up of the dwarves party is in preparation for how Smaug’s coming assault on Laketown plays out, involving characters we’re supposed to be invested in already. If I had the silver pennies to wager on it, I bet Tauriel doesn’t live through the attack. (Which would give Legolas further reason to bear dwarves a grudge for 60 years to take out on Gimli.) But maybe Mr. Jackson won’t want to sacrifice the screen time and the Tauriel merchandize—only time will tell.

Unlike the elves, I did feel that Thorin’s screen time was well-used. His rallying of the crowd in Laketown was strong, and I believed him as a leader, even if he is still a bit of a jerk. He’s supposed to be, so that works. The moment where he and Balin behold the inside of Erebor once again was poignant and unhurried. I found Thorin to be the character with the best depth in the whole film, actually.

And although it completely goes against the canon of what’s actually in Tolkien’s work, I am glad Jackson added an encounter between the dwarves and Smaug, even if the dragon’s chasing of them through Erebor was a little bit inconsistent. I mean, c’mon, he can smell dwarf ON Bilbo, but then passes right over the whole group of them as they’re running on one level and he’s tramping from buttress to buttress above them? (I did like the treasure sprinkling down from his underbelly though. It was a nice touch.) That showdown between the dwarves turning the infrastructure of Erebor on Smaug was a climactic conflict the movie needed, since the paper-pages version of The Hobbit merely had the dwarves waiting around a long time and then finding Smaug gone, and waiting to eventually find no threat doesn’t a good movie make.

As for Gandalf’s scenes in Dol Guldur: Meh. I understand we’re supposed to feel a sense of otherworldly threat, but the vertigo-inducing cinematography in those sequences was just distracting, not moody. I’ll give you that it was cool to see him in his Istari glory, driving back the forces as a wielder of the flame of Anor, but between Galadriel’s telepathic order-giving and his seemingly unmeditated march into what he knows is probably bad news, the progression of these (comparatively short) scenes felt contrived and uneven. I admit, I need to re-read my appendices on just how all that went down, but that might not lend any clarity to the situation, given how far The Desolation of Smaug’s screenplay deviates from the Tolkien source material.

A word on that in closing: I don’t take issue with the fact that Peter Jackson wrote a screenplay that involved a whole ton of stuff not in The Hobbit, the novel. It’s pretty widely understood that he is making Middle Earth movies right now, and more “The Quest for Erebor” than he is The Hobbit. (Perhaps not appreciated, but understood.) The fact is, movies and books are very different art forms, and what works in one doesn’t in another—they, by nature, appeal to different parts of the mental apparatus in terms of ingesting story. The Desolation of Smaug had the feel more of a huge budget fan film than it did of an adaptation—it anchored itself in familiar and appreciated tenants of Middle Earth but explored many of its own contrivances spun from those threads. The great irony is for how long audiences have clamored that you can’t fit all the details of even the shortest book into one movie, but now the outcry is that it’s ludicrous to make one novel into three films. Even if I didn’t personally love the outcome of Peter Jackson’s vision for something beyond the relative simplicity of The Hobbit, I applaud his drive to make the movies he believes in.

In summary
My star rating: 3.5 out of 5
High point: Smaug
Low point: Sloppy, disjointed ensemble


  1. I am so glad you said what you did about movies and books being different animals! And this: "The great irony is for how long audiences have clamored that you can’t fit all the details of even the shortest book into one movie, but now the outcry is that it’s ludicrous to make one novel into three films." Yes!

    And I can understand your issues with the details, like Smaug passing right over the dragons. I agree about Legolas, et al. My biggest gripe about Legolas was the CGI. He just looked....weird. Still, I can't complain about his Orc-killing. My brain goes right into Neanderthal mode during scenes like that. I totally loved it!

    As for Smaug. The rest of the movie could have been a hot mess and he'd have made it worth watching! The voice and other sound effects, and the graphics, his movements....wonderful! I will say, about the voice, as I was watching I could not help thinking how Tim Curry's voice in Legend would have made a great Smaug voice as well.

    1. It's funny--I was saying to my husband, "Well, my review is way too long, and I didn't even get into the awful animation on everything but Smaug." So now that you've opened THAT door . . .

      It was like Weta blew their wad on Smaug and outsourced everything else. Legolas's horse running out of the gates to the Woodland Realm--I've seen cheap game animation that looked better. The orcs along the river? Plastic action figured with about as many manipulation points. The rain and snow effects--noticeably bad. I can understand how Weta's usual team was probably tapped to the limit just dealing with the treasure in Erebor, let alone Smaug, but I was very disappointed that pretty much everything else got half the attention it should have--or the "b" team working on it, or whatever.

      But yeah, I would have sat through a lot of surrounding stink to see those Smaug scenes.


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