The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Reviewed by a Non-Jackson Fan

Yesterday I saw the trailer for the new Godzilla movie for the first time…on the big screen of a theater. It already looked good just on Youtube. It’s really great in larger scale. Can hardly wait for the movie to come out in May of next year.

After the trailer there was a movie called The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, loosely based on the book The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Now, if you know of my history with the films of Peter Jackson, you’re probably expecting a rage filled rant. But this time you’d be wrong.

I certainly have a fair few criticisms of the movie, but as for feeling… Well, I was pleasantly unemotional watching it yesterday. Sure, I rolled my eyes a fair few times, but otherwise no strong feelings either up or down. Except for the scenes with Smaug. Smaug was very well done. Benedict Cumberbatch did a great job bringing out the dragon’s personality.

Anyway, onto my thoughts on the film. Beware of spoilers!

First, I don’t think Peter Jackson knows how to tell a good story. There’s an over reliance on action and CGI, which is typical. The story really gets moved along purely by action and not much by any character development or growth in the story itself. I think Jackson is very, very good at making spectacular blockbuster films. I just don’t think he makes good stories.

Why is that? For one, the over reliance on action I mentioned earlier. Two, throwing in various things of his own creation that don’t really push the story forward in any natural way. Three, poor characterization.

Now, the standard rebuff to people who have issues with Jackson’s work on the films is, “Well, you’re just a Tolkien purist and can’t stand any changes for the film. So much for your criticisms.” Which I can admit might be true in some instances, but not in this case. I didn’t really have any problem with the changes as changes. I had a problem with the fact they didn’t really add much to the story and they distracted in some ways from pushing the story forward. I think Jackson gets lots of great ideas (to him at least) and just pushes them into the story. There should be a way to tell Tolkien’s story and make changes for the sake of the plot and for some added action here and there without skewing the story towards being Peter Jackson’s story instead of Tolkien’s.

Which gets me to characterization. Peter Jackson seems to have three primary character templates (for the good guys at least).

  1. Whiny, neurotic cowards who have to be shamed into doing what’s right.
  2. Whiny, neurotic isolationists who have to be shamed into doing what’s right.
  3. Neurotic characters who are wracked by indecision and have to be pushed into doing what’s right.

He doesn’t seem to understand characters can be virtuous or noble. Or understand that they can organically grow into those characteristics through good storytelling. As a result, to me most of the good characters come off without much personality. Probably one of the reasons I didn’t mind the addition of Tauriel was she actually had a personality.

For the most part, I thought the bad guys were the ones whose personalities came across best. The Orcs, the Dragon, the Master of the Lake-Town (deliciously done by Stephen Fry) and his henchman. They were the ones who had some drive and ambition and color to them.

Now, for some general thoughts. One, does Ian McKellen have a clause in his contract that says he has to have the snot beaten out of him at least once in every trilogy?

Two, Smaug the Magnificent. Brilliantly done. I liked the extended scenes of the dwarves battling him inside Erebor primarily because we got to see more of him. Cumberbatch did a great job in portraying him. To be sure, I still like Richard Boone’s performance in the Rankin/Bass animated Hobbit better, but Cumberbatch was a close second.

I was disappointed, though, with Freeman’s interaction as Bilbo with the dragon. He came off as too much of a milquetoast. Although it certainly did highlight the intimidating and dominating powers of Smaug. If I go see the last movie, it will be solely based on the upcoming battle of Smaug with the Lake-men.

In conclusion, if you leave in everything with Smaug and take out most of the rest, you’ve got yourself a great little movie!

16 thoughts on “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Reviewed by a Non-Jackson Fan

  1. Yes, very enjoyable review, and spot on. Really, even though I enjoyed the movie, I have to agree. I think The Hobbit would have been best in one long movie, but a trilogy? No way. No wonder they had to add all that stuff. I don’t know if I will watch this one again, let alone the extended edition that will surely appear sooner or later on DVD. ;)

    I still like the first one for the very well done riddle scene, but it should have told the whole story, not just the first bit of the book.

    1. I wouldn’t say I disliked the movie. I might even say I enjoyed it, in a very limited, qualified way. I just didn’t think it very good, for a lot of the reasons I mentioned in my review.

      And you hit upon one of the biggest aspects, Minerva, of why the movie has problems. There was no need for this to be a trilogy of films. The Hobbit is a fairly straightforward adventure story. One could’ve had lots of action and what not and told a much tighter story in the space of two movies, if not one long one. But where’s the money in that? ;)

      1. Good point about the commercial aspect, George. I admit that I was a little bewildered (to say the least) when I first heard that the Hobbit would be a movie trilogy like Lord of the Rings.

        I have to agree with Travis, though, that it was visually stunning. Ten, fifteen years ago, that would perhaps have been enough for me, but the older I get, the less I am impressed by SF/X if the movie is lacking in other aspects.

        1. Minerva, I agree with you.

          CGI FX seems to be mostly employed these days to portray violent mayhem and wanton destruction of life. It’s an easy shortcut in storytelling. As a friend of mine succinctly put it, “it cheapens the value of the story.”

          SPOILERS:

          The Avengers was good until the 20 minute overly long and violent battle sequence.

          Ditto Iron Man 3.

          Star Trek Into Darkness: the ship could have landed in the water instead of mowing down skyscrapers a la 9/11.

          Man of Steel? Didn’t even bother to see it.

          I’m sick of exaggerated detached killing without showing the painful consequence in the lives of people mown down for “popcorn entertainment.” I realize a lot of people enjoy it, but It makes me feel like a participant in destruction porn.

          However, CGI/FX was used marvelously and meaningfully in Gravity, and I sure hope it initiates a trend.

          Here’s a thoughtful article by Damon Lindelof on the escalation of violence in films.

          http://www.buzzfeed.com/adambvary/damon-lindelof-on-whether-violence-in-star-trek-into-darknes

        2. I knew I would regret to have missed Gravity… I really enjoy good SF/X if they add to the story. I agree about mindless destruction and explosions. It was impressive in the 90s when computer graphics got better and better, but nowadays, filmmakers shouldn’t solely rely on them.

  2. Thanks George,
    I pretty much agree with your review.
    There are a number of scenes in the book that provided excellent character development opportunities but were turfed in favour of action.
    Gandalf introducing the dwarves to Beorn would have been a great scene but was completely deleted.
    Bilbo and Smaug’s riddling could have been done much better and not rushed. Instead, we had a rush just to see more of Smaug ineptly blowing fire and missing. Insert the dragon scene from Shrek here.
    I pretty much enjoyed the movie, though.

    1. That’s a great point, korg, about the scenes with Beorn. That was one of the best scenes in the book, but here it’s rushed and so abrupt. There’s probably an hour long scene of it in the extended version but frankly in this movie we get more of Thranduil interrogating an orc than we do of Beorn.

      Which is another weakness, IMO. Things from the book get short shrift while scenes made up by the director and scriptwriters get more time and effort. How long did the fight with the spiders last? How much did we learn about Bilbo and then subsequently learn about the dwarves’ respect for him? Zilch. We got more of Tauriel & Kili talking and way much more of the escape from the Elven-Kingdom with all its attendant orc butchering.

  3. I enjoyed the movie, but I think you have some very valid criticisms of the way Jackson does these movies. Cut out a lot of the orc killing by Legolas and whatever that long scene was in the first movie and this could easily have been a two part movie. Stretching it to three is just too much. I enjoyed Tauriel but she was totally unnecessary (and just added more time). Stephen Fry was excellent. I’d forgotten he was in it and it took me a few minutes to figure out who he was.

    I mostly like Freeman as Bilbo. I think I disagree with your characterization of him when he was fighting Smaug. I always thought of Bilbo as being timid but forging ahead. So that part worked for me.

    And I definitely agree with you about Cumberbatch as Smaug. Richard Boone had the perfect voice but this Smaug was very good as well.

    Whenever I see a movie with special effects, I’m reminded of the old ones before computers when the director had to figure out how to use jello or pantyhose or other weird things to get those special effects. And sometimes, those old-fashioned way of doing things worked better. It was too complicated for the director to go over-board, just because they could. So the effects didn’t get in the way of the story. Peter Jackson should take a leaf out of their script and realize that sometimes less is more. Leave a little something to the viewer’s imagination.

    1. Eeyore said, “I mostly like Freeman as Bilbo. I think I disagree with your characterization of him when he was fighting Smaug. I always thought of Bilbo as being timid but forging ahead. So that part worked for me.”

      That’s okay. You’re allowed to disagree with me. :) I just thought the book made out Bilbo to be more assertive and even cocky when he met Smaug. But there I go again thinking the movie would be anything like the book… ;)

      However, thinking about that does point out another weakness in the films, IMO. Bilbo isn’t a central focus of the story. He’s more along for the ride while dwarves and elves butcher orcs. We lose all the power of Bilbo’s adventure and Bilbo’s growth. The story is so diluted among so many plot points and action scenes.

  4. Great review, George.

    I really struggled with this movie. I kept getting up and taking work calls during the extended, pointless action sequences. I loved Smaug … until that got out of control as well. By the time we were at the giant golden dwarf-king, I was so frustrated with the movie I wanted to forget it.

    Visually stunning. McKellen and Freeman were great. But this, in my mind, is the worst thing Jackson has done to the Tolkien stories yet.

    1. Travis said, “But this, in my mind, is the worst thing Jackson has done to the Tolkien stories yet.”

      And that is saying something! :)

      I guess I went in with such low expectations, except of Smaug, that I was able to let the movie wash over me like water off a duck’s back or like Legolas’ blade on an orc’s head. Something like that.

  5. Why bother calling it “The Hobbit” at all when it seems more about the dwarves. Even though this book is not as complex as LotR, it was still a very nice tale about a very cautious Hobbit with a dormant itch for adventure and would have made a splendid little film about his journey. But all this violence and crazy made up stuff has just ruined it. I like Martin Freeman as Bilbo. I think he has the right look and demeanor for Bilbo. But his scenes are wasted. It’s really too bad. We hates it forever.

  6. I saw it again and liked it better. There’s a lot more Bilbo than the first film. That’s a very good thing.
    1. I never pictured Laketown quite that desolate.
    2. In particular, I cringe over the interrogation scene with Thranduil and the orc. An orc would never be brought into that or any other elf kingdom, would they? Am I wrong?
    3. I was unhappy with Gandalf at Dol Goldur seeing Sauron.
    4 .Legolas is so wrong as much as I like the character and actor.
    5 .Love interest is so silly in these tales
    6. The crazy fight scene with Legolas fighting off a hundred orcs looked just like a video game.
    7. Dragon scene great until the dwarves come and it gets silly again.
    8. I can’t say enough about how much I like Martin Freeman as Bilbo. He is very nuanced and humorous and serious and brave and …well…Hobbit-ish.
    9. Scenery still stunning. Especially elven realms…always good value.

    When I am asked why I go to see these films when I am so critical, I can honestly say that a couple hours in Middle Earth even in a bad film is still better than a couple hours in some other film. (except Harry, of course) I hates it not quite forever.

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