The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Movie Review

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Picture this with me.  You’re waiting, full of expectation, in your local museum.  A set of never-before-seen Rembrandt paintings were discovered just a few years ago, and you were thrilled with the first one unveiled.  You’ve been waiting all year to see the next one in the set, and now the time has come.  Along with dozens of other art-lovers, you watch as the new picture is dramatically unveiled.

And your heart drops.  Is it even a Rembrandt?  You can see bits and pieces of the painting that look like they could have been painted by Rembrandt at some point in time.  But someone has painted on top of it – there are Picasso-like figures scattered all over the canvas, in bright colors that look garish next to the original oils of Rembrandt.  Your mouth hangs open as you try to understand who on earth would do this – adding paint to a masterpiece until the original is almost unrecognizable.

This is how I felt when I watched The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in the theater Sunday night.

After seeing the first movie in Peter Jackson’s new trilogy last year, I absolutely loved it.  Even though there were a few extra story lines added in that weren’t in the original book, I didn’t really mind.  Jackson spent so much time and detail on all the scenes that were from the book, getting them so perfect that I could quote along with almost the entire movie, that I could easily forgive any new additions he happened to bring in to the story.  In this second Hobbit movie, scenes pulled directly from the book were few and far between.  They were over almost before they started, and were so bungled and choppy that I had a hard time seeing how they even related to the original story.  It’s my personal estimate that less than a third of the movie was based on Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and less than a tenth of those scenes were done properly.  Peter Jackson had one shot at bringing The Hobbit to life, and he completely squandered most of the story.

I’ll try to condense all of the negatives about the movie as much as I can, and end with the positives, to keep this review from being too depressing. 🙂

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To me, the most disappointing part about The Desolation of Smaug were the scenes I’ve been anxiously awaiting (Beorn’s house, the spiders, the barrel scenes, Lake Town, and most of all, Smaug).  They were so, so poorly done.  Jackson tried to make the dwarves’ journey a race against time, and a race against Azog’s orcs.  As a result, the best parts of the movie were extremely rushed and to be quite honest, just plain weird.  Beorn looked like a werewolf from a black and white movie, the spiders scene started out pretty good and ended with a huge fight scene, and I won’t even try to describe the never-ending barrel-battle sequence.  Lake Town looked right, and Bard was very cool, but once again, Jackson strayed incredibly far from the book with the scenes in Esgaroth.  And most of all, I was bitterly disappointed with Smaug’s scenes!  At first, the conversation between Bilbo and Smaug started off very close to the book, but it degenerated into an awful, thirty-minute-long action sequence.  Even the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch played Smaug couldn’t hold my interest after that.

I had heard rumors about there being a strange love-triangle involved in this movie as well.  “Oh, well,” I thought, “how bad can it be?”  Let me tell you, it was painful.  I don’t mind love triangles in moderation, but it was downright embarrassing in The Hobbit.  Picasso is just fine on his own, but please don’t finger-paint him onto an antique Rembrandt!

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But perhaps the worst decision of all was the constant stream of orcs that kept appearing at all the wrong times, and causing dozens of huge fight scenes.  I didn’t mind Azog in the first Hobbit movie, because Peter Jackson just put him in the place of the random goblins and orcs that harassed the dwarves in the book.  But when nearly half of the movie is taken up with random orc battles that have absolutely no place in the story, it begins to feel very cheap and overdone.  I almost got tired even of Legolas, because all he ever did was fight orcs!  (Of course, that’s not his fault…)  All in all, I felt that the original story line was given as little screen time as possible, shoved in the corner as it were, to make place for the new, cheaper characters and story lines.

Now that that’s behind us, on to the good parts!

Martin Freeman was, as usual, positively brilliant.  His portrayal of Bilbo was still spot-on, no matter how wrong the scenes were that he was playing in.  I loved how the evil of the Ring is beginning to bother, and even frighten, him the longer he keeps it.  And he’s just so hilarious!  His expressions and mannerisms never fail to make me laugh out loud.

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Richard Armitage was brilliant as well, in the role of Thorin.  The rest of the dwarves, as characters, were almost nonexistent in this movie, which is quite sad after becoming attached to them in the first film!

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As I said before, Bard (played by Luke Evans) was excellent; a very noble, brave, wise man.  Gandalf (Ian McKellen) was, of course, just as awesome as ever.  I loved his scenes in the Necromancer’s lair.  They were just like I imagined when I first read the book as a little girl!

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The very first few minutes of the barrel scene, where Bilbo was getting the dwarves packed into the barrels, was so cute.  And I loved the scene where Bilbo gives his sword the name “Sting.”

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My favorite scene in the movie was when the dwarves and Bilbo were trying to find the invisible door in the Lonely Mountain.  Even though it wasn’t exactly like the book, it looked perfect, and it felt more like the book than the rest of the movie did.

I watched The Desolation of Smaug with a group of friends, and discussed the movie with one of my friends afterward.  I was devastated, but he had actually enjoyed it.  He had looked up reviews ahead of time and realized that the movie was completely different than the book.  He told himself before the movie started, “This is not The Hobbit.  It’s a random fantasy movie,” and he had a great time watching the film.  He argued that the changes were good, and made the movie more exciting.  Maybe he’s right – all of the rest of my friends enjoyed it just as much as he did.  But the way I see it, Peter Jackson has no excuse.  He’s got the best of the best to work with: excellent actors, the best movie-making technology around, and a classic masterpiece.  There is absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t have taken his time with every single scene from the book, making each one perfect, dripping with rich details from the pages that Tolkien wrote.  Instead, he crammed in so much new material that the original story line suffered terribly.  In short, I felt that The Desolation of Smaug was a sad case of a ruined masterpiece.

But in one sense, no movie can ever ruin the book it’s based on.  No matter how many different directors interpret a tale, the original remains untouched.  It can always be picked up, thumbed through, and enjoyed by awakening the reader’s own imagination.  I’ve got The Hobbit on my desk right now, ready for a re-read.  The scenes, the characters, the settings – they can be enjoyed over and over again.  And really exceptional books, the classics, will be around hundreds of years after the movies are forgotten.  That, my friends, is the beauty of a masterpiece.

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12 thoughts on “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Movie Review

  1. With one small exception, I found your review spot on, so I won’t repeat your comments. Not having read The Hobbit in many years, I decided to read it again before I saw the second film. After a timid, awkward start, Tolkien’s Bilbo gains in stature with every new adventure, and by the time they reach the Lonely Mountain, it is Bilbo who is making the decisions and leading the expedition. Jackson elected to keep Thorin firmly in charge, which makes sense from an action-movie point of view, but it leaves Jackson with the impossible task of keeping all the dwarves alive despite endless attacks by uncounted enemies. So we get these video game sequences, about which the less said, the better. Tolkien told a fairy tale, and his lovable, rather incompetent dwarves survived, because the “good guys” don’t die in fairy tales. Only in the final battle do Tolkien’s dwarves appear as worthy adversaries, and there, finally, someone dies.
    My one disagreement concerns The Ring. In Tolkien’s accounts, the ring is a magic talisman, but it does not corrupt the ring-bearer. Bilbo carries it for roughly sixty years(!), and it took no real effort on Gandalf’s part to persuade Bilbo to leave it behind when he left the Shire. It is for this reason that readers are so surprised to find Frodo–under rather different circumstances, granted–unable to make the same decision. I didn’t care for Frodo fondling the ring in Jackson’s version, and I feel the same way about Bilbo in the Hobbit. Bilbo, in Tolkien’s book, tells the dwarves about the ring, and it is no secret to Gandalf. Keeping its existence secret becomes essential only after the true nature of the ring is revealed near the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. Secret or not, Jackson permits Frodo to show the ring to a Black Rider shortly before he and Sam leave Faramir for Mordor. The whole game should have been up that instant! But that’s a digression.
    You don’t mention Jackson’s point of view that the dwarves were deprived of their homeland and heritage by Smaug, and The Hobbit is their heroic return to recover what is theirs. In the book, that notion is present, but greed is the overwhelming motive. We’ll see what Jackson does with that in the third film.
    The Arkenstone, by the way, is too big in the film. To fit deep into Bilbo’s pocket, it ought to be about the size of a walnut. The size, I suppose, is to compensate for Jackson’s inability to convey its unique aura and brilliance. Perhaps that is why we don’t get a good look at it, and Smaug chases Bilbo instead.

    • Thank you so much for your comment! Your observations are all spot-on. I really appreciate the contrast you mentioned between the leadership of Thorin/Bilbo in Jackson/Tolkien’s stories. I felt that Bilbo was very much overshadowed in this movie – the title should have just left of the words “The Hobbit” entirely. Also, that’s a very astute observation about the direct relation between the dwarves’ bumbling nature and the fact that they survive so often in the book.

      As for the Ring issue, I completely agree that Bilbo was never corrupted or even, it seems, tempted in the book. If Jackson had stayed close to the book in the rest of the film, I may have had a real problem with him making Bilbo corrupted. But because the rest of the movie was so badly done, and strayed so extremely far from the book, I felt that at least the scenes with the Ring felt somewhat poignant and compelling. They felt more like they belonged in the Middle Earth world than the rest of the movie did. But yes, I totally agree with you that those scenes were not at all accurate. To me, they simply felt a bit closer to the story than the rest of the film.

      I hadn’t really thought about the dwarves’ motives being different in the book and film. I certainly find their movie motive (reclaiming their homeland) to be much more noble than their book motive (gold). And as far as the Arkenstone’s size goes, I actually thought the size to be perfect. Not at all realistic, of course – it’s just that I had imagined it being that enormous when I first read the book as a little girl. So its larger-than-life size actually satisfies my nostalgic side as I watch the movie. 🙂

  2. Not going to watch this! I absolutely cannot stand a movie that portrays to be “based on” a book I love and have nothing in common but the name.

  3. Pretty much agree with you, though I prefer this one, actually, to the first. The first had the terrible Radagast, Goblin King, and dwarf humor. My expectations were dashed. With this second, I not only wasn’t expecting Middle-Earth, I wasn’t even looking for a good fantasy movie, so I was pleasantly surprised. Still. We need more Martin Freeman. Cumberbatch was a great dragon though, despite the terribly hectic riddles sequence.

    • Your approach to this movie sounds like that of my friend that I mentioned in my review. I wish that I would have been able to do the same! I might have enjoyed it. I’ve never seen the movie you mentioned, so I don’t really get the “Mad Mad Middle Earth” title, but it sounds hilarious all the same. 😀 And three cheers for you for reading Enemy Brothers!!!

    • Your “Mad, Mad, Mad…” analogy is very apt, although only Jimmy Durante kicks the bucket(!) in that movie. And, you other people, do find It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and enjoy it!

      Regarding Constance Savery’s Enemy Brothers and Elizabeth Goudge… What Savery and Goudge have in common is the celebration of “good” people (as opposed to “good guys”) and a preference for reconciliation over retribution, so that their novels end with unpleasant characters either mending their ways or fading away unnoticed. If you read the Wikipedia article about Charlotte Brontë, you will find a short reference to Brontë’s unfinished novel Emma, which was completed by Savery. The publisher insisted that Savery remain anonymous, so the cover reads “…by Charlotte Brontë and Another Lady. The Wikipedia footnote acknowledges Savery’s authorship and notes that the book had also been attributed to Goudge. The most extreme turn-arounds by unsympathetic characters are found in Goudge’s Linnets and Valerians and Savery’s The Drifting Sands. I am the last one to deny the power of the Holy Spirit, but really!!

      • Ah! Someone who knows of Goudge! Nobody I know has heard of her! I’ve only read one of her books – The Dean’s Watch – but was enchanted by the lightness and grace of her prose and worldview, along with the quirky, child-like characters. But I could easily see it becoming saccharine and unrealistic in its view of grace, so I’d prefer Evelyn Waugh, ultimately (not that he didn’t have his faults – not quite sure I bought all Brideshead’s conversions). Savery’s style was very charming as well, but it did become preachy in the later chapters of Enemy Brothers.

        I also was aware of the connection between the two via Bronte – I found it extremely amusing, since I’d just been thinking of the similarity.

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