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The Desolation of Smaug: Accentuate the Positive

Michael back again. Nathaniel recently asked us if any of us had seen The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Peter Jackson's latest Middle Earth chapter is entering its sixth weekend with $800+ million in the worldwide bank and three more Oscar nominations and it's gone completely unremarked upon at TFE.  But I could feel the life draining out of me as I attempted to review it. Surely the world did not need one more dissection of Peter Jackson’s chronic inability to rein in his material. What’s left to say, save that Desolation has exactly the problems you would expect it to have? Hell, one could get the same from any archived review of The Lovely Bones or King Kong. All the criticisms still apply.

So I junked that review and decided it would be good for the soul to write something positive instead. After all, Jackson is a maddening filmmaker not because he’s some worthless hack but because he frequently buries moments of brilliance in all the sprawling self-indulgence. So with that in mind here is a list of five things I loved or liked about The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug:

1. Dude, Awesome Spiders - Something about spiders brings out the best in Jackson. Return of the King’s Shelob is, and forever will be, the giant spider gold standard (Annie Hall notwithstanding), but the spider attack in Desolation is nearly as good. It has what so much of the other action in this new trilogy sorely lacks: a visceral sense of danger.

2. Martin Freeman is terrific – Critics are right to point out that the trilogy’s protagonist has been egregiously sidelined amid all the subplots, but that shouldn’t overshadow the fact that every time Freeman does  stand center stage he nails it in a big way. It’s a reminder that Jackson remains one of the best directors of actors working on a blockbuster scale.

3. Smaug is worth the wait doesn't disappoint- If there was one crucial hurdle this new trilogy had to clear it was that the dragon had to be spectacular, and Smaug delivers on the epic buildup. Jackson hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to imbuing CGI creatures with personality. The dragon is a stunning creation with great attention to detail and a superb vocal performance form Benedict Cumerbatch (whose voice is altered almost out of recognition). Of course the confrontation between Smaug and the dwarves is drawn out to such ridiculous lengths that Smaug’s initial awe-inspiring presence dwind – No, I’m staying positive! Terrific dragon. I particularly enjoy the way its abdomen glows orange as a warning it is about to breath flames. 

4. I cared about one of the Dwarves this time - That’s nearly 8% of the dwarves and thus a big step up from the first leg of the Hobbit trilogy in which the dwarves were neatly divided between those I couldn’t tell apart and those I could tell apart, but so what. This time Balin, the old dwarf with the white beard played Ken Stott, emerges as a character worth giving a damn about. Then again any character might seem interesting standing next to Thorin Oakenshield with his interminable brooding. 

5. Stephen Colbert is in it - I know I said five things but I’m struggling here. Honestly, the film was a real slog. The first Jackson film in which it felt like the superfluous fluff outweighed the actual meat of the story. Even Middle Earth’s normally impeccable production design has started to feel chintzy. But hey, Stephen Colbert has a tiny cameo in this one, and that reminded me of his adorably nerdy Tolkien obsession, which is always a good thing. Here he is taking James Franco to Tolkien school:


So I suppose if I’m looking for a sincere compliment to put in the fifth slot I could to point to that outpouring of nerd love as a reminder that even amid the excess and the mercenary decisions to split the films and the frequent mangling of Tolkien’s peaceful spirit ... even with all that, the films still exude a love of the material which feels genuine. Jackson’s recent films may lumber about like late-period Brando, bloated and undisciplined, but like old Brando, if you look hard enough you can still spot that glimmer of greatness you first fell in love with.

Can you say five positive things about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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Reader Comments (19)

1) I liked this one much better than the first one, where I didn't connect to any of the characters and was bored.
2) I also thought Martin Freeman was excellent
3) I really liked Evangeline Lilly's character and performance. For a new character I thought she fit right into the story. I appreciate Jackson beefing up the female roles.
4) The dragon was amazing; both the visuals and voice work. The part where he shakes off the gold was breathtaking.
5) I love the costuming of Radagast, he had a much smaller part in this movie but seeing him still made me smile.

This was a fun idea, thanks

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdaisy

1-Although I enjoyed An Unexpected Journey, Desolation Of Smaug - while still having its own problems - is a big improvement on it in terms of character development and emotional gravitas (the dwarves were better developed and individualized).

2-The score is yet another home run for Howard Shore and should have gotten a Best Original Score nomination at the Oscars.

3-Quite a few of the new characters added to the story - Bard, Tanuriel, Thanduril, etc. - were a success.

4-While the effects were spotty in places, Gandalf's battle with the Necromancer was one of the best scenes in the film.

5-I'm gonna steal daisy's number four (although I thought the gold coming off Smaug was one of the weaker effects).

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

1. That extended Elves vs. Dwarves vs. Orcs river/barrel sequence was truly a thing of beauty. Super fun!

2. That super creepy and effective effect when Gandalf faces the "eye" of Sauron for the first time. I felt chills. Most of the people in the theater I saw it in also seemed to love it.

3. More because I have an unending crush on Bloom as Legolas and love, love Turner as Kili but to have them in a plot together, albeit a somewhat forced love triangle, was nice.

4. As you said, Freeman is aces. His scenes with Smaug were very good.

5. Lee Pace being a straight up diva. More please.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

For me, the single true false step in the film is that opening flashback - otherwise I think it's continuously smooth sailing up and to and including that closing song which though barer (orchestra-wise) than previous theme songs is a great fit for the film.

At this point I don't think the film needs to justify its existence, it's already happening, but so much of the finer touches within this one justify its trilogy status especially regarding the way I'd imagine the citizens of Dale would be given no agency in a single film for the book. But, even aside from looking for reasons it should be split I found the film enchanting especially for the way it ambles along with little solemnity (Bilbo's exasperated time with Smaug in the cage is funnier than you might anticipate). I think, Michael, your point about only the spider scene having that danger is true, but I also don't think the film is intending for ever present danger as much as sly awareness of danger but foolishly intrepid winsomeness despite it. (Like Bilbo, who is not at all like Frodo.)

The urgency and forward thrust is assured and it wins points for one of my favourite endings of the year, although I'm surprised the last line has not been used against it as a review title for those who didn't like it.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

watched about half of it for free on some dubious website, which is about the only way i would ever watch it at all. i can see why the masses have flocked to it. the whole series (rings and hobbit) is like a good tv series, the kind you keep returning to because you feel you've made "friends" with the world it created. it's human to be drawn to something familiar, like an old sweater. critics, who are invested in what is new and original so that they can write something new and original, rarely get that there are other approaches to entertainment than dissection for originality; how about how it serves to alleviate loneliness or how it transports us away from our bleak llewyn davis-like lives? on the other hand, i didn't like "desolation" enough to actually watch it through to the end, so the critics are absolutely right, too.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterxander

I didn't like it as much as An Unexpected Journey, but I still enjoyed it. I'd like it a whole lot more if it didn't just stop where it did. That was a bad narrative decision. The stopping place for An Unexpected Journey felt like a conclusion; this felt like TBC, Suckers.

I wanted more Martin Freeman. It's called The Hobbit for a reason. It's Bilbo's story. He should not be a secondary character in it, especially when the actor is killing the role.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I liked An Unexpected Journey a lot more than Smaug (while liking them both), but since we're accentuating the positive (and thanks for that!):

1) The way Freeman as Bilbo condescends to Smaug. "O Smaug, the unassessably wealthy..."
2) The way Smaug's face lights up when he sees the massive golden statue.
3) The cliffhanger ending, and the way the music drops out as Smaug flies off to lay waste to Laketown.
4) The swelling of the score when Tauriel talks about the moonlight
5) Gandalf vs. The Necromancer/Eye of Sauron - gave me chills

I also really like some of Smaug's dwarf insults. Dude is a major league trash talker.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSmith

Gonna reiterate Ryan T's request for more Lee Pace, who was the real standout for me in this film. Didn't realize (or remember) that he was in it and he stole every scene he was in. He perfectly rode the line between fantastical and gay camp but still managed to convey the gravitas of a leader, albeit with an ulterior motive subtext.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAriesMatt

This was so much more enjoyable than the first one.
My favorite things about the movie-
1. Lee Pace as the Elven King. Fabulous.
2. The barrel riding sequence, although I wish it hadn't been so drawn out.
3 Laketown. I really liked the production so much so that it made some of the subplots and characters in that sequence bearable.
4. Smaug. I LOVED Cumberbatches voicework and the CGI. My favorite part is when he emerges from underneath the gold.
5. The music. So much more sinister sounding this time.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteryshark

Ohhhh my god, that Franco/Colbert showdown!

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBD

1. This was my first Tolkein movie where I didn't look at my watch and wonder when if would end.
2. Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch together again ( in a manner of speaking)
3. I loved the escape-from-the-orcs-down-the-river- in-barrels-with -help -from -the -awesome-elves sequence. They should create a ride in Hobbiton New Zealand.
4. Elf Evangeline. Fantastic character but does there always have to be some romantic allusion with an attractive female character. Couldn't she just stand on her own. Oh well One day "her" Prince won't come and she's not gonna care.
5. All the distinguished English character actors having a great time hamming it up.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne

I liked it far better than the first one, which was a total surprise, from the trailers I had suspected I'll like it even less, and it would get even more boring. To the contrary, this time, something was happening actually.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDominik

It's way too quiet around here. Quick. Someone say something about JLaw.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy


also luke evans' bard and stephen fry's master of laketown.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

ha this is a great idea! This should become a regular thing - although it probably works best with someone like Jackson who consistently does amazing and shit work in the same film. But lest we forget, there is a lot that Jackson gets right in these films, starting with -

Top 5 things in best order.

1. The barrel/escape from Mirkwood sequence. Easily the best (and most importantly) most fun action sequence of the year. Usually Jackson wows with scope, this time it was with creativity, momentum, and humor - rivals the very best of TLOTR for pure adrenaline & fun.

2. Smaug. Surpassed my expectations and makes me look forward to the third chapter.

3. The Spiders - for all the reasons that Michael pointed out above. Really terrific. From these top three, you might think I am a special effect junkie - I'm not - blending special effects with character and excitement/horror, is what Jackson is King at.

4. Bilbo. He is a truly great central character to have - miles better than Frodo (and continents better than Thorin.)

5. Elf Princess. What a complete badass. I was prepared to hate her because she was a new character (!) in a love triangle (!!) Adding more length & plot to an already long and plotty film (!). However, I loved her.

By far, the best of the film is the 1 to 1 1/2 hours spent in Mirkwood. Pace, Lilly, spiders, escape, Bilbo.....EVERYTHING was working fantastically.

PS - Nathaniel is sort-of a moron for not watching these and considering this for his tech categories. The design of Laketown & the dwarf kingdom at the lonely mountain is superb. Special effects are amazing. I know he groaned about Jackson being nominated yet again in a tech category at this years Oscars. Jackson's not being nominated! Its the craftspeople (many of which are different from the original trilogy), and should be considered for their new, different, and challenging work. Rant over.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

I love the books and the first trilogy, and I kinda liked An Unexpected Journey. Desolation of Smaug is the first one I really disliked. But, still, let's stick with the premise and single out the five good things about it (in no particular order):

1. The FX with the dragon were top notch. Too bad all the other CGI was really cheap looking and, unofrtunately, the movie was extra bloated with it. It had a King Kong feeling to it, rather than LotR.
2. Tauriel should not exist, but Evangeline Lily's acting was pretty good. Shw was the only good actor playing an Elf in the movie. Orlando Bloom was a robotic non-entity and Lee Pace was an over-the-top mess (though from the comments above, I reckon I am on the minority)
3. The few and far in between Bilbo bits were great fun. Too bad the movie would be more aptly titled Everyone But The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug;
4. Ian McKellen outing half of the cast, for the LOLz if nothing else;
5. The score. Even though I disliked the movie, at least I'll always have the music! =)

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Sandiego

@Anonny: I think calling Nathaniel a (sort of) moron for not watching the films is out of hand. He always makes it clear that he has his biases and he has certainly made his bias against The Hobbit films very clear. Therefore, if he doesn't want to see the films then that's his choice. In saying that, I think his dissatisfaction with The Hobbit getting technical nominations is a little troublesome.

You cannot deem something unfit to be a nominee when you haven't seen it; and to do so undermines a person's opinion quite a bit. For example, I haven't seen Wolf Of Wall Street yet but if I started calling it unworthy of Best Picture, how fair - or credible - would that be? Again, while I do think your comments were too harsh, I do believe Nathaniel's dismissal of the film's merits without evidence is uncalled for.

January 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

Tolkien's The Hobbit is a rather simplistic children's book that has little in common with the themes and depth of his later Lord of The Rings trilogy; if Jackson had a produced a single film as thin and straightforward as the book it would have sat particularly oddly against his earlier films (which had successfully dumped so much of the ill disciplined content that Tolkien or his editors didn't take out - Tom Bombadil anyone?). I think few would have found that to be a successful or even warranted cinematic experience.

For me the best parts of the Jackson Hobbit films to date are those elements which at best are only hinted at in the Hobbit - the Necromancers identity and his influence over Mirkwood, the guardian role of Galadriel and the Ring Wraiths' tombs.

Jackson didn't attempt to film the Hobbit; he is attempting to create a matched book end to the earlier trilogy. It may be a doomed endeavour but if so, it relates as much to the failures of Tolkiens original work than Jackson's inability to edit (good editing is sometime about knowing what needs to go in as much as what should be taken out).

The Hobbit films may have many failings but I for one look forward to how Jackson finishes it off and I have no doubt it will be in a manner that it is an improvement on the book.

January 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermatt

Lee Pace as the Elven King! Brava!

I hope to see ,more of him in the 3rd movie

January 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

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