The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
As someone who read The Hobbit in 5th grade, I’m a long-time fan of Middle Earth and exactly the type of audience member who is preconditioned to like these movies no matter what. I liked the first installment of The Hobbit very much. However, I am not so far removed from objectivity that I can’t see and understand the criticisms that other people had with it. It was slightly too goofy, and rather slow-paced. (I don’t give any credence to the complaint of too many dwarves, though. That’s how the book is written, and the movie doesn’t ask you to remember more than the 2 or 3 that are most prominently featured). So if people are approaching part 2 of this Hobbit story a little more cautiously, they are justified in doing so. Happily, this one improves on both of the major complaints I mentioned above, plus a few other changes that may be “controversial” to fans of the book.
In addressing the pace, well, this is the middle chapter. There are no introductions or setup. The movie starts mid-adventure and stays that way throughout the running time. Not only does this reduce the slower parts of the first one, but the movie itself is about 9 minutes shorter. Both are good things for the general public. And as for the goofiness, if that’s the right word…there is less of it. Specifically, there is less corny humor. It’s not gone. There are still jokes, but they fit better this time around. I also want to address the action scenes. The first movie had action that was frenetic and outlandish, as the dwarves seemed to bounce around with no chance of injury, while the goblins/orcs would fall at the slightest touch. This round of action is similar, but ever-so-slightly more serious. The same outlandish action takes place, with 2 scenes in particular being a marvel of choreography. They are beautiful. There is still very little risk of peril for our heroes, but there is SOME, which makes a much better experience than last time.
Other positives include the acting, especially from Luke Evans as Bard, and Ian McKellan as Gandalf. Also surprisingly good were Lee Pace and Evangeline Lilly as an elven King and soldier, respectively. The production design is again mind-boggling if you go for that sort of thing (I do). The score was fine–I liked the callbacks to previous motifs, but there’s only one new piece that sticks out (for me anyway). I think the script had a few too many cliches meant to sound profound. Like “How do we know we can trust him?” “We don’t.” or “What choice do we have?” “None.”
The REAL discussion to have about the script though, is how radically it veers from the book. Everyone knows it’s a short book and making three movies out of it would be tough. Yet the first movie largely stayed true to the story. In this one, however, there are HUGE divergences. Stories change, characters are entirely invented, and screentime is given to events that before were only implied in the footnotes of Lord of the Rings. Tolkien purists could very well be dismayed at all of the changes. I, on the other hand, loved nearly all of them. I am a Tolkien fan, but I am not a purist. To me, seeing these story changes and new characters was basically like getting a brand new Tolkien adventure. Instead of just waiting for the story I already knew to unfold, I was left wondering what would happen next. This added element of surprise was a boon to me. It kept me more actively involved because I didn’t already know everything to come. I know some people will be upset. I confess at one point they took such a hard left turn that I felt myself getting angry…but then the filmmakers totally redeemed themselves in the next scene, bringing things back to where they should be. Hopefully over time the purists will appreciate what was done here. I’m not saying they should prefer it to the book, of course. Just that they should give it a chance.
To end on a positive note, I thought Smaug was flawless. The design, the voice, the motion, and the CGI used to create him was all top-notch. Not all of the CGI in the movie was top notch, but it was very clear that every possible effort went into making the dragon one of the best, if not THE best, animated creatures to ever fill a movie screen. I should give special mention to Benedict Cumberbatch for giving Smaug such a great personality. He exudes intelligence, arrogance, nihilism, greed, and even charm that I would have been fine with if the dwarves had just had a nice conversation with him. That’s not exactly what happens in the movie though :)
I think anyone who enjoyed the first part will enjoy this more. For anyone who was on the fence about the first part, this one improves nearly everything. For anyone who didn’t like the first part…ordinarily I’d say this would be a waste of your time. But I know a woman who actively disliked the Lord of the Rings movies and Hobbit part 1 and still enjoyed this one. So who knows? I do acknowledge that my score is filtered through being a Tolkien fan. You might want to deduct a full point if you’re not a fantasy geek like me.