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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug review: are we there yet?

The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug yellow light

Smaug is a magnificent cinematic creation… but there’s no good reason it takes so damn long to get to him.
I’m “biast” (pro): Cumberbatch! Armitage! Freeman!

I’m “biast” (con): didn’t love Jackson’s first chapter

I have read the source material many times (and I love it)

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The story so far: Bilbo Baggins of the Shire has been shanghaied along on a quest with dwarf king-without-portfolio Thorin and his kinsmen-subjects to retake the Lonely Mountain, former realm of the dwarfs, from Smaug the dragon. They’ve only just about gotten past the bend in the road by the end of the first film, but Bilbo does manage to secretly acquire a magic ring which makes the wearer invisible. Meanwhile, Gandalf the Gray, Wizard Esq., is totally freaking out because an ancient bad guy appears to be awakening from some sort of slumber, and so he takes a bunch of meetings with elves, who Know Things. Memos about darkness and evil are produced.

Now, Part 2.

There’s a fantastic 90-minute movie here. Alas, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug runs two hours and 40 minutes. The length wouldn’t be a problem if it felt like most of it mattered. But, as with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it doesn’t. It’s like Peter Jackson is making a movie — a three-part, nine-hour movie — set in 1918 and desperately wants us to care about the outcome of World War II, a generation away and far over the horizon, when we already know how it ends anyway. And he wants us to care only in a grand but generic sense, disconnected from any well-drawn characters we can empathize with here. Just going, “Oooo, Hitler!” isn’t enough. “War is coming,” Gandalf (Ian McKellen: The Wolverine, The Golden Compass) intones ominously here (and not in the presence of Bilbo or his dwarvish traveling companions, who don’t have the tiniest inkling that something nefarious might be coalescing, not to come to a head for many decades still). All I could think was, “Oh, you mean that war we’ve already seen won and done?” (That would be in The Lord of the Rings, but frankly, I don’t know why anyone who hadn’t seen those films would be bothering with these, or why I feel the need to explain.) Gandalf is worried. Fine. But he’s not someone we readily identify with. He’s a wizard — his whole point here is to be mysterious and inscrutable and unknowable. If might be hard enough to feel his worry even if we didn’t know how that far-distant looming war would turn out.

The problems here are all the same ones repeated, then, from Part 1. There’s little immediate or urgent about most of what we see onscreen here… except when the focus is on Bilbo. And not only because Martin Freeman (The World’s End, Sherlock), as the hobbit, is delicious and hilarious and represents just about the most perfect casting of any movie role ever. It’s because nothing else beyond what happens to him feels like an organic, satisfying story. Some unseen narrative force knows that this meant to be Bilbo’s tale and so has chosen to fill only his moments with real spirit and power. There’s a moment, in the grim shadows of the mythically potent forest Mirkwood, when the dwarf traveling party is attacked by enormous gruesome spiders, and Bilbo loses his magic ring and kills a spider in violent rage — something well beyond the self-defense that has been driving him in the battle to this point — in order to retrieve it… and then he’s horrified at what he’s done. Horrified. Freeman is startling in this moment, and so is the film. This is a good bit for Jackson to have embellished from the book — this is not Tolkien’s moment, nor is the clever addition of letting Bilbo understand the evil speech of the nasty spiders only when he’s in the netherworld he sees while wearing the One Ring. But they’re perfect. They’re the sort of thing we need to appreciate that what we’re witnessing here is a precursor to the War of the Ring.

What we don’t need? Legolas, for one. I mean, Yay, Orlando Bloom (The Three Musketeers, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End), but there’s no reason for the elf’s presence. Except to be able to toss him into some unengaging, overlong videogame action bits: Oh, hey, now you get to play Legolas fighting the orc captain! *yawn* We don’t need the wholly-Jackson-invented character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly: Real Steel, The Hurt Locker). Sure, it’s cool that she’s an elf warrior who kicks lots of orc butt, and I get Jackson’s motivation: to bring a female presence into a male-dominated story. But this is still a hugely, overwhelmingly male-dominated story (which is okay: some stories need to be that). And we certainly don’t need a badass chick elf if it seems like the only reason she’s here is to set up a ridiculous romantic triangle between her, Legolas, and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones). (Yeah, really. Ugh.)

But you know what? All the pointless tangents in which Gandalf rides off to fret about Sauron returning, and the political squabbling among horrible humans in Laketown (watch for Stephen Colbert’s cameo here!), and the endless strategy conversations among orcs? All of them can be forgiven — almost — because the final 40 minutes or so are incredible. For this is when Bilbo (finally) descends into the Lonely Mountain, and meets Smaug the dragon.

Oh my goodness. Smaug is a magnificent cinematic creation, part motion-capture CGI and part voiceover magic and all Benedict Cumberbatch (The Fifth Estate, Star Trek Into Darkness). Wait, that sounds like an insult… except, well, yeah, he makes Smaug sexy, which a gigantic fire-breathing dragon should be, if in a terrifying way, as Smaug is. Finally, too, there is a sense of true urgency to the story before us, as Bilbo’s life depends on how sweetly he can talk his way out of this mess, as Thorin (Richard Armitage: Captain America: The First Avenger) is caught in the terrible grip of the seductive dwarf jewel the Arkenstone.

Dammit, but by the final line of the film — delivered by Bilbo, in another moment in which Freeman is glorious — I was totally gripped, and clamoring for the third and final film. It just shouldn’t have taken so long to get there, and I still don’t know how Jackson is going to fill three hours of There and Back Again The Battle of the Five Armies.

Note: The 48FPS version of the film was not shown to critics, so I saw this in the usual 24FPS.

see also:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies review

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
US/Can release: Dec 13 2013
UK/Ire release: Dec 13 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated HBD: here be draggin’
MPAA: rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
BBFC: rated 12A (contains moderate violence and threat)

viewed in 3D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • David C-D


    And even if some produces “The Hobbit Edit”, we’ll probably never get to see it on the big screen.

    Maybe just go for coffee breaks during the early parts…

  • MisterAntrobus

    Discretion is the better part of filmmaking. Jackson’s always at his best when he sticks closest to the essence of the material. The stuff he cut out in the LOTR trilogy almost always helped the films move along more expeditiously, and he gloriously realized many of the most dramatic moments of that story. The stuff he made up was usually distracting at best, and embarrassing at worst. (e.g. 20 minutes of Aragorn being presumed dead just so he can float down the river and have a dream about his girlfriend, or Denethor leaping from the top of his citadel while on fire.)

    Jackson wisely resisted his initial plans to turn Arwen into a kick-ass warrior and bring her to Helm’s Deep. Looks like he forgot that lesson this time around. One token female character who’s not meaningfully connected to the story is almost worse than no female characters.

  • Kathy_A

    As much as I loved and adored LotR (saw them in the theater on average 10 times each), I saw last year’s film only once, really did not like the 48fps 3D version (way too clear and almost disorientating in that I felt like the characters were riding past a backdrop, not real-life scenery), and even though I bought the DVD two months ago, I have yet to even take the plastic wrapping off. Admittedly, I’ve only read the source book once back in 1980 (8th grade language arts class), even though I’ve read LotR at least 20 times, so I wasn’t as enthralled with the movie as I was with LotR.
    Anyway, the reviews I’ve been reading of DoS do usually say that it’s better than part 1, so I’ll go see it this weekend, probably, if I have time. If not, it’ll be after Christmas.

    I feel rather sad that I am not geeked out about this like I was with LotR, actually.

  • bronxbee

    hah… i was going to mention that someone is sure to do that, and i look forward to it.

  • I’m not surprised by this. The first was decently entertaining, but too long, and padded. I figured this would be the same way.
    I read the book a LONG time ago, and don’t remember anything from it, so I have no stake in the book vs. movie debate.

    The main thing that’s bothered me about these movies is the producers/Jackson trying to turn them into LOTR part 2. The marketing grates on me with it’s insufferable oozing of EPIC importance.

    I wish they had just kept it more subdued and made a fun adventure that didn’t take itself too seriously.
    All that being said, as long as it’s entertaining, I’ll be happy. We wont see it this weekend, but probably will next.

  • David_Conner

    I was dubious when I first heard that they were going to stretch The Hobbit into 3 films, but naively thought “Well, it *is* a big story, and three zippy 90-minute movies will probably be better than one ponderous attempt to fit everything into a three-hour running time.

    So, of course, we’re getting THREE ponderous three-hour films, instead….

  • Bluejay

    These films go ever on and on.

  • Karl Morton IV

    They do!! Hooray!!! :)

  • Aha! Jackson mistook “The road goes ever on and on” for “The film goes ever on and on”!

  • I will be watching this on the largest screen I can find. Also, 3 movies at 3 hours each will make for a wealth of usable material when the time comes for that inevitable 90-minute fan-edited single Hobbit movie everybody’s looking forward to anyway.

  • bronxbee

    i actually enjoyed this better than the first part. and the last 40 minutes (if it was 40 minutes) was astounding… martin freeman is an acting god, and i love richard armitage (even with the nose). however, legolas was a mistake… orlando bloom is so obviously 10 years older than he was in LotR… not in a bad way, but he looks so solid and manly — not elven ethereal… i did like the female elf warrior, but i think that’s a separate movie to be made… also Smaug! AMAZING.

  • he looks so solid and manly

    I thought that, too. He looks quite different now.

  • bronxbee

    he actually looks the same age as his dad. still gorgeous, but not, as i said, as elven.

  • MisterAntrobus

    As do I. I hope there’s enough unadulterated material that it can be edited down to the 3-4 hour film it should have been in the first place.

  • MisterAntrobus

    If only Jackson remembered that the story has to get “Back Again” at some point . . .

  • Drave

    Unfortunately, I think PJ is onto us now. There are not only a bunch of additions, but a lot of the scenes from the book have been “cleverly” tweaked so that they don’t work without his additions. *sigh*

  • Emil Hyde

    Still holding out for the 2-to-3-hour fan edit of the entire trilogy, to more closely resemble the pacing and focus of the source material… and if no one else takes it upon themselves to create one, maybe I will.

    Would such a thing be possible, given what you’ve seen of the films?

  • Absolutely.

  • Karl Morton IV

    A short version has been done. Check out the 80-minute Rankin-Bass version if you want to see what that’s like.

  • Karl Morton IV

    Ooohhh, the cunning bastard!! How DARE he make a fan edit difficult to achieve! LOL!

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Oy, these movies…

    I expect I’ll watch The Lord of the Rings 3 or 4 dozen times over the course of my life. I expect to sit through The Hobbit the one time, and that’s it.

    Did I say “sit through”? I think I meant “endure”.

    You’re so right about the lack of urgency. This is a story being told by a storyteller who knows he has a captive audience and all the time in the world. Everything that happens takes twice as long as it should.

    And what makes it even more inexcusable is how badly all of the myriad subplots are being handled. Fir instance, I literally could not remember what the Arkenstone looked like. I knew it supposedly drove Thorin’s grandfather mad, but I still have no idea what that has to do with anything. I didn’t know, until halfway though this movie, that that’s what Bilbo is supposed to burgle, or even that Thorin needs to get the Arkenstone in order to unite the dwarves, because dwarves just like being uncooperative dicks to each other unless one of them has a shiny.

    Meanwhile, as much as I like Martin Freeman, Bilbo’s emotional arc appears to have been completed in the first movie. to the point where the story is no longer about Bilbo.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Well, if the 80-minute version is too short, and the 8-hour version is too long, that would suggest that there’s a 2 1/2 to 5 hour version that’s just right.

  • Bluejay

    * looking at a rating system ranking “hot actors” *

    Q: Why don’t you just make “ten” hotter and make “ten” be the top number and make that a little hotter?

    * pauses, points to Orlando Bloom *

    A: This one goes to “elven.”


    I’ll show myself out.

  • bronxbee

    actually with that sort of sense of humor, you’re welcome to my comments any time!

  • Dave Andrews


  • Beowulf

    No way, Jose.

  • Beowulf

    You guys are in a completely separate fan group obviously. Smaug is too damn short to do justice to the characters. I want more of Beorn.

  • Beowulf

    MaryAnn wants more heroic female characters and then bitches when she gets one.
    How about an all-male remake of “The Women” with Adam Sandler and his crew? Or Dorothy now played by Danny? Or Martin Poppins?

  • Danielm80

    Next she’ll be saying that Megan Fox isn’t a feminist icon, or that I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry doesn’t advocate for gay rights.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I’ll trade more Beorn for much less barrel-riding, for starters.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Is it really something we should count if said “heroic female character” is utterly inconsequential to the story and appears to exist only to a) be the token female character and b) generate some romantic tension between two (also inconsequential) male characters?

    The answer is no.

  • Beowulf

    oh, I’ve seen it. That’s ALL we would have if mean, nasty Peter Jackson hadn’t made those long, long abortions you all seem to have a love-hate relationship with. The extended versions, telling Tolkien’s story, seem shorter because they work better.

  • Bluejay

    you all seem to have a love-hate relationship

    Yes, exactly. These are flawed films, with things to love and things not to love (and MaryAnn’s review mentions both). We’re allowed to be critical viewers, no? Or should we all just fawn over 100% of Jackson’s decisions? The Hobbit certainly deserves more than just 80 minutes, but perhaps it doesn’t quite need to go on for 540. That’s like … well, like butter scraped over too much bread.

    The extended versions, telling Tolkien’s story

    I’ll grant that the extended editions of the original LOTR trilogy include more material drawn from Tolkien. But if you’re talking about the Hobbit prequels, they don’t seem to have been stretched out in order to tell Tolkien’s story. They seem to have been stretched out in order to fit in more stuff that isn’t part of Tolkien’s story. (See: Tauriel, Torn Between Two Lovers. Also: Barrel Ride, Now With More Orc Slaying!)

    For myself, I don’t hate the Hobbit films. I actually quite enjoy them; I can tell how much Jackson loves playing in this world, how seriously the actors take their roles, how much thought and effort is put into every detail. It’s evident in every frame that these films are a real labor of love, and for this reason they’re not horrible. But they’re also not very well-edited or well-paced stories. They’re like the rambling stories that old Grandpa tells while sitting on his rocking chair on the porch and smoking his pipe: they’re kinda fun to listen to, but God do they go on and on, and Grandpa loses the thread so often, and at one point the main character seems to be a different person than the one the story started with, and so on. It’s okay to enjoy such stories; it’s also okay to recognize their flaws and limitations.

  • LaSargenta

    I just had to explain to the pixie over the weekend that I hadn’t seen any of the LOTR or Hobbit films just because I haven’t had the time. Seriously, I used to reread these books all once a year, including the Book of Lost Tales and Lays of Beleriand, the Silmarillion, Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and his other books, even much of the posthumously published work (also Watership Down and, yes I know it is not Tolkien, but it is epic!); but, I just can’t get myself to set aside the time to see these. This is a major committment — especially if I’m going to come out of them in a “love-hate relationship”. I’ve found the trailers alone exhausting. These reviews and all the comment threads don’t make me want to see them, either. I think I rather keep the story I see in my head.

  • amanohyo

    I knew this was a red light for me when the projector broke near the climax of the film and I was only mildly annoyed. MA is right about the pacing. The last time I saw that much padding I was wearing a straightjacket.

    The first movie had a more serious tone with stronger writing and acting overall. Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly are very pretty, but their acting is poor here. In previous LotR films, the elves were not nearly as cocky, cruel, and vain in such a distinctly human way

    Lee Pace fairs a little better, but is forced to deliver a couple snort-worthy lines that no one could salvage. Freeman and Armitage are solid as usual; however, the standouts for me were Ken Stott, who gives Balin a subtle warmth that stands in sharp contrast to the broad soap opera emotional strokes of the other characters, and of course Cumberbatch’s hypnotizing Smaug who sounds like the love child of Unicron and Frank-N-Furter.

    The action scenes were far more cartoonish in general – the final shots when Smaug is chasing the dwarves through the fortress brought to mind those cartoon chases that take place in a hallway full of doors – no real sense of a coherent architecture or smooth physical transitions from scene to scene. I enjoyed bits of the river barrel chase, although it strained my credulity past the breaking point as well.

    The movie felt designed by committee with no overarching vision or exploration of any themes to say nothing of character development. That camera pan back to Legolas when the elf girl and dwarf “fall in love” in a single corny conversation is ripped straight out of a paint by numbers rom-com. As with Hunger Games, the rough transitions suggest that different teams worked on various scenes with little to no inter-team communication.

    This was also the first 48 fps film I’ve seen, and it was as jarring as many warned it would be – it felt as though everyone was talking and moving slightly too fast, and the backgrounds looked like cheap stage backdrops. I can’t imagine anyone would prefer such an unnatural format. I watched the first Hobbit film in 24 fps at home, and enjoyed it about as much as the second movie in the first trilogy, and slightly more than the third movie. This drop in quality for this entry has ensured that I won’t be watching the next which saddens me. I had high hopes that this might be the series’ Empire Strikes Back, but it turned out to be just another Attack of the Clones.

  • Cuthbert J. Twillie

    Bloom’s face looks rounder than it did 10 years ago, which I guess is inevitable, but his eyes also seem to be a different color than in LOTR. Incidentally, he’s actually OLDER than Lee Pace.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Gigantic fire-breathing dragons should be sexy? Funny how MaryAnn managed to avoid mentioning this in her previous reviews of various draconocentric movies…

  • I liked Lord of the Rings. The first two adaptations of The Hobbit are truly dreadful, however. The worst was Smaug, who instead of being a gigantic overawing threat became a cartoon character humbled by snowballs and unable to even injure one little dwarf in half a dozen approaches. That would have been enough to ruin the movie for me, but there was more, some of which the writer covered. It seems we must be subject to gymnastic special effects from creatures clearly incapable of them, video game deaths ad nauseum, and unimaginably odious “love” scenes in every Jackson movie or his world is not complete. I hope his day passes, soon, and with it this sort of film making.

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