I read a few reviews of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug before I saw it, and they all said variations of the same thing: it’s fine I guess but oh my God it’s so long and padded with superfluous characters and extraneous scenes and unnecessary subplots in a desperate attempt to pad out a short children’s book into a nine-hour fantasy epic!
To which I say: Speak DUH and enter. (Misty Mountain-cold Tolkein burn!) There seems to be some confusion as to why The Hobbit movies exist in the first place.
It’s not because the book is a beloved children’s story — although it is — which demanded to be given a proper cinematic treatment. The movies exist for people like me, and like Peter Jackson for that matter, who loved having a new Lord of the Rings epic out every year around Christmas time, bought and watched every expanded edition and special feature, and wished that it could somehow turn into an indefinitely-running TV series. Like, say, a much much less sexy Game of Thrones without all the ambiguity.
My take on The Desolation of Smaug is essentially the same as my take on An Unexpected Journey: it’s obvious that the filmmakers wanted an excuse to spend more time playing around in Middle Earth, and who could possibly blame them? The normal rules of cinematic pacing, even for three-hour epics, just doesn’t apply here. Complaining about superfluous side-plots in The Hobbit movies is like complaining about all the gratuitous sex in a porno.
I even read a complaint from someone who said Hollywood kept “ruining his childhood.” Which is always a dumb complaint — unless it’s about gutting theme park attractions which only exist in one place, which is a perfectly valid thing to get upset about — but is particularly off the mark here. It’s been so long since I’ve read The Hobbit that I can no longer remember exactly what was in the original and what’s Jackson and Walsh’s creations, but I do know that nothing in the movies feels out of place with a story about characters named “Balin, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur.”
Of course, that does mean that with this entry in the series, you end up with a movie called The Hobbit that’s not really about the Hobbit. It’s about a surly dwarven king, and a elf-dwarf-elf love triangle, and for some reason, a human revolutionary who’s the noble soul of a town in the grips of a corrupt governor even despite his inability to grow a decent beard.
And also a dragon. And the movie absolutely delivers on the dragon. The scale, and the action, and the dialogue all had to be perfect: this was the scene that, like the riddle contest with Gollum in the first movie, was the core of the whole story. I think it was just about perfect, impossibly huge and menacing and even (spoiler, maybe?) gold-plated. It was also just plain nice seeing a character in a conversation with a giant monster, a concept that basically disappeared sometime during the 1950s. Also nice to see it animated so well, with the designers actually putting thought into how this creature would speak, instead of just pasting on an uncanny CG talking animation, Aslan-style.
The other stand-out sequence of the movie was, of course, the barrel sequence, essentially an extended exercise in “how many different ways can we kill orcs?” That sequence, and a few of the scenes in Mirkwood, were a reminder of what I liked so much about The Lord of the Rings: for all the pomp and epic-ness, Jackson manages to squeeze all his B-movie horror influences in there. Including aspects that are so campy in the midst of all the Necromancers and Ultimate Evils makes the whole thing feel more real and less distant.
I’ve read that the look of the film was changed significantly in response to complaints about the high frame rate version of the first one. It was distractingly evident throughout. I’ve gotten used to all the Middle Earth movies alternating between a comforting dark blue and a hazy high-bloom brown reserved for scenes of Hobbits frolicking about on beds, but every scene in The Desolation of Smaug seemed oddly washed-out. It didn’t occur to me while I was watching it, but it makes sense that they over-compensated with the color correction in an attempt to smooth out the home-video feel of 48 fps. And still, even in the IMAX version, there were several shots during the barrel sequence that looked as if they were video inserted into a traditional film. (I read that parts of the barrel sequence looked like they were shot on a GoPro, which is the perfect description).
There was still a little bit of dodgy CGI here and there, almost as if they were saving all their energy for the Smaug sequences, which makes sense seeing as how he’s the title character. And there are several scenes where the make-up just doesn’t work, even in the 24 fps version. The Orcs have always looked a little bit more like action figures molded out of PVC than living creatures, but the dwarves bear the worst of it. They’ve perfected the differing-scale techniques that I didn’t once notice anything odd about humans, dwarves, and hobbits interacting with each other, but the dwarves still look like a mass of fake beards, wigs, and skull masks.
But again, it doesn’t matter all that much. There’s enough bow-flinging, spider-killing, pub-talking, warg-riding, orc-slashing, elf-molesting, corrupt mayor-advising, loose scale-discovering, magic bubble-casting, and dragon-gilding to last me until the epic conclusion next Christmas. Any review is going to be missing the point, since there are really only two questions that need to be answered in regards to The Desolation of Smaug:
- Is there a dragon in it?
- Is the dragon cool?