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  • Year: 2013
  • Director: Peter Jackson
  • Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

Although a three-film trilogy based on a 300-page novel sounds silly, An Unexpected Journey is good enough to make us think it could work. It’s a bit padded, sure, but it is ultimately a well-made and entertaining film. The combination of the first film’s success and the anticipation of finally seeing the dragon made me really look forward to seeing The Desolation of Smaug when it first came out.

Well, we actually start right where we left off…nah who am I kidding? We have to start with a prologue, in Bree before the quest began. Here Thorin meets Gandalf who tells him that the time to reclaim Erebor is now.

bree

Thorin insists that the other dwarf families will never unite without the Arkenstone. In the book, the nature of the Arkenstone isn’t expanded on too much; it’s basically just the most glorious gem in the mountain. Here it is what Thorin’s line believes gives them the right to rule, and if Bilbo can sneak in and burgle the Arkenstone, the other dwarves will come to their aid and help defeat Smaug. It’s a small change to the text that makes a lot of sense, as there isn’t all that much of a plan to actually defeat Smaug in the book.

When we cut back to where we left off, the company is still worried about the orcs catching up to them. Gandalf suggests that they take shelter at the house of Beorn, the skin-changer, a character who has been left out of every adaptation so far. While I love that we finally get to see this guy on screen, the buildup to his character is just idiotic. Gandalf even utters the incredibly contrived line, “He will help us… or he will kill us,” without telling them anything about Beorn. They run to the house chased by a bear, and once they bar the doors on him, Gandalf tells them that the bear is their host. Um, what?

  1. Gandalf knows Beorn can change from a man into a bear, so why did he not tell the dwarves this? Does he just get off to them being scared out of their wits?
  2. If Gandalf is so unsure about whether they will survive, what is the point of going to Beorn’s house at all? In the book, Gandalf knew Beorn was aloof, but the only fear of Beorn killing the company came from Bilbo’s childlike sensibilities.
  3. Why does Gandalf think it is socially acceptable to barge into a house with 14 guests?
  4. Does Beorn in bear-form not realize what Beorn in human form does? Surely he at least understands that the dwarves are running to his own house.
  5. If Beorn is so averse to company, why does he keep his doors unlocked? Is this a werewolf-type situation where he does destruction he’s not aware of? Well no, because Gandalf says, “He’s under no enchantment but his own.”

It is immensely clear that Peter Jackson only had the scene play out this way for the sake of forced tension, and it is painful. Don’t get me wrong, the bear-form looks fantastic, but surely they could have shown it off in another way.

2bears

In the book, our introduction to Beorn is this fantastic little scene where Gandalf tells Beorn the story of the journey and introduces the dwarves gradually, knowing that Beorn would never take all 13 plus Bilbo at once, but he would get too caught up in the story a la One Thousand and One Nights that he’d end up letting them all stay anyway. It shows off Gandalf’s intelligence and is a genuinely funny scene.

Thankfully, we do get a version of that scene in the extended edition. Although they have already spent the night at Beorn’s home, none of the company has met Beorn the man (Mikeal Persbrandt) yet. Gandalf is scared of Beorn here and is not doing this out of cunning but out of fear, but that speaks more to my general issue with Gandalf’s characterization than it does the writing of this scene. I’m just glad it’s included. Plus, in a movie with a very gray and black color palette, the scenes outside Beorn’s home are very colorful indeed.

beorn

This is not exactly how I picture Beorn when I read the books (I imagine more of an Ian McShane or maybe even a Kurt Russell-type), but it is still a really memorable performance, and there’s even an extra layer of tragedy in that he’s the last of his kind.

At the outskirts of Mirkwood Forest, Gandalf departs the company to investigate the Necromancer on his own. The Mirkwood scenes work just fine, especially in the extended cut where we get the enchanting stream, but we sadly never get the pitch black nights described in the book. The image of eyes constantly watching the company as they try to sleep is eerie in the book, and it shouldn’t have been that hard to include. Heck, the cartoon did just fine on this one. Here, Mirkwood feels more maddening than it does evil.

pool

As Bilbo is saving the dwarves from the spiders, the Wood Elves come in and kill the remaining spiders and take the dwarves captive. Here we get the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who for some reason was one of the most popular characters in the original trilogy. To be fair, I completely understand why Legolas is included in this film—his father Thranduil is the Elvenking who takes the dwarves prisoner, and Legolas would have been in the kingdom at the time. That said, he gets way too much screen time, and his action scenes just get more ridiculous as they go.

The dwarves get taken back to the Wood Elf kingdom, which looks fantastic.

kingdom

Say what you will about the overuse of CGI in these films, but the backgrounds look gorgeous and incredibly lifelike. I never once doubt that the dwarves are really in this wooden kingdom. Speaking of wooden…

thran

Alright let’s talk about very possibly the worst character in the whole trilogy.

alfrid

Hey, hey, I said “possibly.” We’ll get to you Alfrid…

Anyway, let’s talk about Thranduil, played by Lee Pace. This man delivers every single line as if it’s the dramatic crux of a community theater Shakespeare play. Dude, tone it down 2 or 150 notches. You’re not Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments; you’re an elf in a fantasy film.

thrand
Eek back up, no interrogation is intimidating this close.

We’re also introduced to Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), a movie-only character who begins a flirtatious relationship with Fili…or Kili… the beardless one. (I know, it’s Kili.) There really weren’t any female characters in The Hobbit (not that Tolkien had trouble writing strong female characters, just look at Eowyn), so I completely understand adding her in, especially with it being a trilogy. Her love story with Kili comes pretty naturally, as both of them don’t feel completely at home among their own people. She’s also a strong warrior, and easily more interesting than Thranduil or Legolas. However, there is this really forced love triangle (everyone but the studio opposed it), as Legolas is apparently interested in Tauriel, even though he never shows enough emotion for us to be aware of this.

In my review of the Rankin/Bass Hobbit, I talked about how enjoyable the escape from the Wood Elf prison was, because it just let us soak up some atmosphere with the beautiful animation and catchy song “Rollin’ Down the Hole.” Needless to say, I was really looking forward to seeing how it would play out here…and I have to admit that this was the moment I realized Desolation of Smaug was going to be a disappointment. Instead of a heroic and lightly comical moment due to everyone being stuffed in barrels, we get a fight scene… a really long and ridiculously overblown fight scene between dwarves, orcs, and elves. This was it for me, the instant I knew atmosphere was being sacrificed for stupid sword fights. However, the person who edited the scene with the music from the cartoon is my personal hero.

It’s just another scene of forced drama mixed with inexplicably stupid comedy. At one point, Bombur (still in his dilapidated barrel) spins around at rapid speed and kills some orcs, jumps right back into another barrel, and continues to roll down the river.

barbom

Soon after, Legolas kills some orcs while standing on two dwarves.

barr

The number of audible sighs I let out during this scene has to approach the world record.

Alright, before I get angrier at this scene, let’s see what Gandalf’s up to.

bombur

Oh, he’s off investigating why this rock formation looks so much like Bombur.

bombur

No, of course he’s investigating the greater evil in the world and discovering that the nine ring-wraiths have risen. He eventually meets up with Thrain (Anthony Sher), Thorin’s father, and helps him regain his sanity. Thrain owned one of the seven rings under the power of the one, and his ring-finger has been cut off. However, Thrain is killed by orcs before he can ever see his son again, and while most of his scenes are fine, his death is accompanied by the stock Wilhelm Scream, which just sounds stupid. Ultimately these Gandalf scenes are serviceable, but they just don’t amount to much. Everything plays out like we expect, which isn’t always bad, but there’s nothing in the way of character growth either. It’s just filler.

Meanwhile, the dwarves and Bilbo (who is still there apparently, minimal screen time notwithstanding) come ashore where they are almost immediately greeted by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans).

bards

Bard is built up to be the hero of Lake-town, the family man who will eventually take down Smaug himself. So what does our hero do in his opening scene? Fire an arrow at one of the dwarves without asking questions, of course. What a noble and intelligent character to root for.

Bard agrees to smuggle them into Lake-town for a price, and on the way over, Bilbo gets one of his funniest lines in the trilogy. Many of the dwarves are acting antagonistic towards Bard (Perhaps it was the shoot first, ask questions later approach) with Dwalin saying “I’ve had enough of this lippy lake man.” Bilbo, incredibly fed up with all of them says that his name is Bard, and he knows simply because “Uh, I asked him.” I just love the dry and slightly annoyed way Martin Freeman delivers the line, and it makes me wish there was more Bilbo in this movie called The Hobbit.

When we get to Lake-town, the movie stops absolutely dead in its tracks. The book features all of one chapter in Lake-town, but Peter Jackson needed to pad this movie out, so we spend a torturous amount of time with characters who take our story nowhere. The Master of Lake-town from the book finally makes an appearance, here played by Stephen Fry. His annoying and not-at-all-funny minion is the aforementioned Alfrid (Ryan Gage).

The Master in the novel was greedy and didn’t really want much to do with the dwarves, but I never got the impression he was someone as repulsive as Stephen Fry’s portrayal. The Master in the film is portrayed as a slovenly, overweight, egocentric tyrant with a horrendous orange comb-over who hates the poor and keeps a framed portrait of himself in his home…

portrait

Alright, I know, I’ve played my Trump card a lot, but sometimes it’s just too easy. I promise, I will not make another Trump joke for the rest of this year series review.

They just play the gross factor up way too much. In a gag (and I do mean gag) right out of a Naked Gun movie, the Master is ranting about Bard being the only one who would ever challenge him, saying “No one else would have the…” when he is immediately interrupted by Alfrid saying “Bollocks,” then proceeding to serve him a literal plate of testicles.

nol

We spend far too long in Lake Town, and if that wasn’t enough, Fili, Kili, Oin, and Bofur stay behind in while the rest of the dwarves go to the mountain. Kili was shot with a morgul arrow during the flume ride earlier, and now the poison is acting up. It serves to give more time to his subplot with Tauriel, but they could have handled it differently. Also, you left three of the most interesting dwarves (and Oin) behind! These are the ones I want to see bask in the glory of their mountain home.

Why does their need to be a prophecy about the Mountain King returning? Every time I hear a character reciting it, I just think of The Omen, and it’s a terrible idea for a mediocre movie to remind me of a great one. Why do we need a scene where Bard (Again, A HERO) suggests someone’s wife is a whore? Why do we need Bard to be descended from the original man who failed to kill Smaug? Why does he need an inferiority complex over this? I know, the answer is “padding,” but note how none of these have anything to do with Bilbo. Why can’t we have more character scenes? Why weren’t the Mirkwood and Wood Elf scenes stretched out longer?

Finally, two hours into a three hour movie subtitled The Desolation of Smaug, we finally get the famous scene of Bilbo interacting with Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). This was universally called the best part of the film by critics, and some said it made the whole movie worth it. Cumberbatch and Freeman are both fantastic, and the design of Smaug is breathtaking. It is some of the best special effects work I’ve ever seen.

ysmaug

It’s nice to get a smooth and cunning dragon like the one in Tolkien’s novel. Bilbo doesn’t keep the ring on the whole time like in the book, but from a visual standpoint, I get it. The ring comes off on its own accord, showing its true power. At least it’s not like the scene in the cartoon where Bilbo removes it just to show off.

Bilbo barely survives and runs back to the dwarves, who then all proceed to enter the mountain in an attempt to kill the dragon. While some of the moments in this chase are visually interesting (mainly due to Smaug), it’s just excessive

smaug3

Eventually, it just feels like a video game puzzle, where your goal is complete task after task with the intention of doing something absolutely ridiculous like covering a dragon in molten gold…

dragoold

It’s an overblown cat-and-mouse game that leads to Smaug leaving the mountain to terrorize the Lake-men. Again, it’s far more entertaining to watch than Gandalf being locked in prison, Bard being locked in prison, or Legolas and Tauriel fighting more orcs, but you could play the Benny Hill theme over the chase scenes and not lose much. As silly as the whole covered in gold thing is, the moment where Smaug flies out of the mountain, gold falling down around him, and flies toward Lake-town is breathtaking.

gold

Bilbo looks up, says “What have we done?” and that’s the end of the movie. Just like that, the credits roll. That’s not an ending, it’s a network TV cliffhanger that I specifically praised the first film for not doing. There’s no character development and no resolution of a single plot thread. If sometime in the first act we had learn the dwarves cared about nothing more than getting the dragon out of the mountain dead or alive, this would be some growth, as they realize they’ve unleashed terror on the world. A short meeting scene somewhere in Mirkwood would have given the chance to give the other dwarves a few more lines and would have actually given this ending punch.

Or how about this—actually killing the dragon?! The title The Desolation of Smaug is a deliberate mislead to the audience, suggesting the desolation he has already brought rather than the nightmare he will bring to Lake-town. We’re all watching for the famous scene where he destroys Lake-town with fire and is ultimately brought down by Bard, but it’s saved until the next movie. This movie, which doesn’t really have a beginning or an end, should have perhaps been called The Hobbit: The Road Goes Ever On. It’s still a Tolkien-esque title and more accurately represents the middle installment of this trilogy. Look, I know this was intended to be two films instead of three and a lot of changes were made at the last minute, but I have to judge the finished product.

Over the credits, we get to hear Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire,” which admittedly is pretty great. I can actually enjoy it now instead of the first time I saw the film, where I was too busy being angry. Let’s get this over with…

Adaptation (20/50 Points)

The first hour is pretty enjoyable, especially in the extended edition. The additional Beorn and Mirkwood scenes feel very much in line with the book and add some nice character and atmosphere. Once the company gets captured by the Wood Elves, it goes to hell. The barrel scene is a disastrous cartoon and it takes way too long to leave Lake-town. The Bilbo and Smaug scene is brilliant, but then it goes back to being drawn out and pointless again. The Gandalf subplot isn’t awful, but if you just left in the Necromancer subplot from the first and third films, you wouldn’t lose a thing.

Cast (17/25 Points)

Martin Freeman is as charming, witty and delightful as ever as Bilbo, but he is ridiculously out of focus for the entire second act of this film, as well as parts of the third. Richard Armitage’s Thorin has actually grown, now smiling a lot more and acknowledging how important Bilbo is often. Orlando Bloom is back as Legolas, which made a lot of people happy I guess, but I couldn’t care less about his monotonous performance. Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage attempt in vain to bring some comedic relief, but the best humor comes from Lee Pace’s hilariously awful performance as Thranduil. Benedict Cumberbatch is sly and threatening as Smaug though, and I like Evangeline Lily as Tauriel enough.

Experience (20/25 Points)

This is a tough one to score, as it features the incredible design of Smaug and more brilliant scoring by Howard Shore (His Lake-town theme in particular stands out). However, some of the battle scenes are incredibly cartoony, and it’s a much grayer film than the first (Again, too long in Lake-town).

FINAL SCORE: 57%

There’s a solid hour of really good cinema here, and one or two unquestionably great moments like Bilbo confronting Smaug. The rest is just a bunch of bollocks (literally). If it’s a movie you’re going to check out, please watch the extended cut, as the good scenes only get better.

Next week, we find out if the Hobbit trilogy will end up being a good but imperfect product or if the first film was just a lucky break, with my review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

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