The Desolation of Smaug achieved a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes, a full 9% higher than its predecessor. Many reviews cite the faster pacing of the film as the reason for it’s success, and it is definitely faster…but is that a good thing?
I loved An Unexpected Journey. I loved everything about it. And while I loved almost everything about Desolation, there are a couple things that still rankle. However, please note that while these are certainly annoying, the movie as a whole is certainly worthy of your time. [SPOILERS]
What sets these movies apart, what makes them more than just an adaptation of the book, is all the extra stuff. They take a sentence from the book and turn it into a full-fledged action scene, like with the rock giants from Journey. Or they tweak a section from the book to make a little more sense, or to fit it into the movie better, like turning the “Black Arrow” into a special type of weapon fired from what looks like a super-awesome anti-dragon ballista. They turn tiny skirmishes into full-fledged battles, and they’re also not above outright fabricating plot.
This isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it’s often a lot of fun, and without it, the movies certainly wouldn’t be as good. The open tombs of the Nine are fantastic, the attack on Dol Goldur is phenomenal, and Gandalf’s battle against Sauron is freaking awesome.
But it can also backfire, which it does in the worst possible way in their treatment of Beorn. They take what was an incredible allusion to the enormity and scope of Middle-Earth, with room enough for all sorts of beings with no relation to the smaller story at hand…and they turn him into just one more piece of the puzzle. What’s worse, they do so in the clumsiest manner possible: By having him vomit out his entire back-story in a 3-5 minute monologue before being banished off-screen for the rest of the movie. Back to the story, everybody, let’s move it along!
It’s easy to see what they intended to do here: They wanted to make the story of The Hobbit larger, to encompass the entire world. But what they actually achieved was to make the world of Middle Earth smaller. There is no room for anything that is not intimately connected with the immediate story, and that saddens me.
And then there are also a couple moments that make you wonder whether you’ve seen them before…and then you think, “Oh, yeah, of course I’ve seen this before.” Kili’s whole “Morgul blade” ordeal is by far the worst offender here, but there are others. The assistant to the Master of Laketown is obviously Grima Wormtongue’s long-lost brother, and Thranduil reminds me of nothing so much as an elven Denethor, with the same disregard for the bigger picture, but with even less excuse (how can an elf who lives for thousands of years focus on anything but the big picture!?).
And then, there’s Tauriel the female elf, caught in a weird love triangle between Legolas and Kili. Look: I know they’re trying to personalize Kili a bit more, but was “love triangle with Legolas and Tuariel” really the only thing came to mind? Also, she’s obviously going to die in the third movie, in an necessarily heart-wrenching fashion.
BUT, aside from those problems, the film is still really good.
From the haze-inducing forests of Mirkwood to the awe-inspiring halls of Erebor, they don’t miss a single beat when it comes to setting the appropriate scene. Mirkwood perfectly captures the feeling of a great forest slowly succumbing to corruption. The dwarves stumble their way through a drug-like haze, struggling to stay on the path, until they are overtaken first by spiders, then by the elves of Mirkwood.
Laketown is clearly the home of people who have set up more-or-less permanent residence on the lake…but the fundamental instability and grime means that Laketown can never be more than what it is right now. The Master of Laketown is a caricature, but he’s a caricature in the book as well, and the caricature is well done.
And Erebor is absurdly huge. I kept on expecting Scrooge McDuck to show up to dive into the sea of coins, but even Scrooge’s fortune is dwarfed (pun NOT intended) by what we see in Erebor. But of course, the most impressive part of Erebor is Smaug the Magnificent, the Calamity of Calamities. No matter what I say, you’re not going to actually get how enormous he is, so I’m not going to waste time trying. But more impressive than his size is his real-ness. He has weight, and heft. He literally fills the room, and the dwarves can’t sneak past him so much as under him. I can’t recall a single moment where I thought, “Wow, that was some terrible CG.” In fact, it wasn’t until after the movie that I pondered the CG at all. It was that good.
And along the way, we’re beginning to get a much better sense of each dwarf as an individual. The party splits repeatedly, giving us a look at how the dwarves interact with each other in smaller groups, and this goes a long way. We get a much better sense of who some of the individual dwarves are (especially Fili and Kili for some reason…). Of course, sometimes they do this badly. Like, “unnecessary love triangle with a character who doesn’t even exist in the books” badly. But for the most part it’s very well done.
And then, of course, there’re the action scenes. Let me be frank: These are the best action scenes that have ever been produced in a LoTR film. They’re absurd and so far over-the-top that <CLEVER ELF JOKE???>, but then again, The Hobbit has always been a little ridiculous. Let me give you a couple examples.
In The Two Towers, Legolas rides a shield down a staircase once. In Desolation, the orcs don’t carry shields, so Legolas just shrugs and uses the body of an orc to skateboard down a staircase not once, but twice in one scene. He shoots several orcs while careening down the river and standing on the heads of two of the dwarves. But the highest kill count almost certainly belongs to Bombur, who now has to register any barrel in his possession as a deadly weapon.
In closing, I unfortunately can’t endorse this as unhesitatingly as I did An Unexpected Journey. There are just too many weird things going on, too many fumbled opportunities, for me to give it an unequivocal 5 stars. But it’s a solid four, maybe even a four and a half, and you should definitely see it.