I finally had the chance to sit down and watch The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug this evening, and it was great fun falling back into the cinematic Tolkien world that Jackson has crafted. But I couldn’t help but feel a sinking disappointment throughout it all. Despite the beautiful choreography and the lathered on make-up and sets and setting and cameos, the core of the movie felt like a grasping at wind, at long-lost nostalgia. But before I get into my review, let me give you some background.
I grew up with my father telling me about “his generation”. The Star Wars generation. He remembers with great detail the impact the trilogy had on him and his life and his imagination. In my lifetime, or rather my youth, I’ve seen plenty of filmic trilogies come and go, each impacting me in subtle ways forming me into the proud geek I am today. To name a few I think back to fondly from my formative years, there’s Bryan Singer’s X-Men trilogy, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, The Bourne Trilogy… even a prequel Star Wars trilogy. But the one that has and always shall stand out to me is The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I love them. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they were the “Star Wars” of my generation. I read the books. I read The Hobbit. I also tried to read The Silmarillion (and failed… but I tried). When I watch them, they need to be the Extended Editions, and even then they’re too short for me. I get completely lost in the wonder of Middle Earth that any portion of the trilogy is too small unless it’s the full thing. I find that Howard Shore’s compositions come to mind easier than nearly any John Williams tune, and I can honestly tell which scene each recording belongs to. When people ask me what my favorite movie is, I find it very easy answer, but they don’t always get it. I say “The Lord of the Rings,” and they ask “which one?” In my mind they are all-together 1 flawless film.
When An Unexpected Journey was released in 2012 I was ECSTATIC. Although I realized off the bat it didn’t have the epic feel of Lord of the Rings I’d hoped for, just being in Middle Earth again was something truly special for me. I then spent two months in Costa Rica (Dec 2013-Jan 2014) and I missed seeing The Desolation of Smaug in theatres. All my friends, my family – they thought it was excellent. Far better than the first. Now that I’ve had the chance to see it though, I feel like it fell quite flat for me, despite being very entertaining and a hell of a romp.
As is The Two Towers in the LotR trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug isn’t a complete film. This has been mentioned by other critics, but it has no true beginning or end. It is simply the middle of the story. But with its roller-coaster storytelling, the climax felt oddly level with the rest of the film. Which is odd seeing as how they finally introduce Smaug the Terrible to us. But this is merely a byproduct of turning one story into many for the sake of creating a trilogy. By implanting meat into a story you dilute the source material. And by injecting steroids into a children’s book (yes, The Hobbit was a children’s book) you’ve effectively given it a faux-epic feel that pales in comparison to the truly epic Lord of the Rings. By both implanting meat and injecting steroids to the film in order to split it into three whole parts you find it really doesn’t gel very well after it’s all said and done. The foundation is there. The key lore is there. The beautiful, unbelievable New Zealand is there. But the love for the source material is lost.
Despite all this, seeing Legolas back on my screen drew a smile ripe across my face. As did seeing Bree and the Prancing Pony, and that blink-and-you-miss-it cameo that Peter Jackson makes (in fact the same cameo he did in Fellowship). Getting to see Beorn on screen oddly reminded me of how we DIDN’T get to see Tom Bombadil in the original trilogy, which also brought a smile to my face. Legolas hopping over the heads of the dwarves was just as magical if not more-so than him bringing down an Olaphant or jumping onto a sprinting horse. Gandalf’s magic on full display as he took on the power of the Necromancer Sauron himself – always cool. It’s like finally getting to see Yoda fight.
I even liked the completely non-canon Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lily. The Hobbit is distinctly lacking in a love story, so it only made sense to include something of that vein. Tauriel was effectively playing and homaging to the roles of Arwen and Éowyn from the original trilogy, sometimes excelling, sometimes failing. I truly disliked her use of the Elven language while tending to Kili’s wound, a scene who’s only purpose was homaging to Arwen and Frodo so as to reclaim nostalgia amongst fans. It fell flat for me. But Kili’s words afterward did touch my heart and I think that was far more inspiring. Whether I like the added drama that Legolas is after her heart as well… I dunno. Also thought Thranduil was a bit too emotion-heavy for a true elf king.
They did very well at not relying so heavily on CGI when it came to costuming this time around. It just doesn’t look as good as the real thing. The orcs felt more like they were supposed to than they did in An Unexpected Journey. But that being said, the added plot references to the Necromancer and Sauron and the tombs of the nine Nazgûl were, in my opinion, totally unnecessary. Cool yes. Enjoyable yes. But this added plot that derived from other Tolkien works/notes being morphed to working for this film did it ultimately a great disservice. It helped connect dots that didn’t need connecting, and explained plot points from the original trilogy that destroy the mystique and imagination it originally evoked.
Last but not least is Smaug. What a fantastic job they did there. I know I said previously that the climax didn’t exactly feel like one, but I’d be hard pressed to deny that it was a beautiful scene. The creation of Smaug is, as far as I can remember, the best realization of any dragon I’ve ever seen in any movie. Benedict Cumberbatch delectably voicing the great dragon, counterpointed by Martin Freeman’s inherent innocence is such a great combination that one must deduce they’ve worked in together in some fashion previously, however improbable that may seem. The way they created the chambers in Erebor filled with unmeasurable wealth in gold was brilliant as well. I could re-watch that scene over and over really.
All in all, I liked the film. But I feel no more happy or complete now that I’ve finally seen it, compared to beforehand. This is in stark contrast to The Lord of the Rings, which undoubtedly makes my geekdom a far richer and more imaginative realm than without. This is the fundamental difference I feel in the pit of my stomach, and why I find it hard to love this new trilogy as it is currently. If The Lord of the Rings really was the Star Wars of my generation, then I guess this must be how it felt for original trilogy Star Wars fans to watch the prequels. They’re just not the same.