Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Thinker by Rodin

I have to wonder what J.R.R. Tolkien might think of Peter Jackson’s bloated three-part movie of his relatively small children’s book, The Hobbit. It’s hard to guess as being dead for nearly half a century there are not many alive who knew him. It’s not hard to guess what his son Christopher is thinking, given what he thought of his direction of the three earlier Lord of the Rings movies. It is probably something like, “My father must be rolling in his grave.”

Turning a book into a movie is an imperfect process. No movie can truly be faithful to the book, at least if its goal is to turn a profit. There were two dreadful movies made of Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged that were reputedly faithful but made dismal showings at the box office. In the case of Rand’s book, the material is pretty weird and unmarketable. It’s hard to turn such a turgid work into anything that anyone would want to see. The Hobbit probably could have been made reasonably faithful to the book, but it would have been one movie instead of three, and it would have been told the way it was written: as a children’s story. In short, it would have taken a different director with smaller, not larger expectations.

But Peter Jackson has his brand of Tolkien and he is not changing it. So in this second installment, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we get more of what we saw in the first installment, which was a lot like what we saw in the Lord of the Rings movies. Jackson is typecasting himself as a director in this second installment like he did in the first. You would not have to guess that he directed it, even if he did not show up in the credits. Just in case there is any ambiguity, watch the very first scene. In literally the opening scene in Bree, Jackson makes a cameo biting into a carrot.

Anyhow, this movie adaptation is no children’s story, so in that sense it’s all wrong to the spirit of the book. In fact, Tolkien himself would not want children to see this movie. It’s all grown up and action-ified with orcs heads being sliced off right and left. And that means there are also plenty of impossible escapes from death complemented by amazing but now ho-hum special effects. And since Jackson and the show’s producers know what sells, they must find reasons to have popular characters comeback. So Legolas, who is not in the book The Hobbit at all shows up, and gets a huge amount of screen time. And since this is a movie, and not the book, we get a she-elf (silver class), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). She is not necessarily a bad addition. Tolkien wasn’t into feminism but this is the 21st century. We expect a kickass female character or two, and Tauriel delivers by proving she can wield a bow and arrow at least as well as Legolas. Plus she’s cute to look at and gets infatuated with a dwarf.

Mostly though The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a bloated, feature-rich, puffed up excuse to take a modest children’s book and morph it into something barely recognizable from its source material. As a prequel to Jackson’s earlier Rings movies though, it is as comfortable as the first installment. You expect entertainment and you certainly get over the top entertainment. Plus you get all this stuff not in the book, but alluded to in appendices and other source material, such as a dangerous trip Gandalf makes to something of a haunted castle near Mirkwood. And since this is a Peter Jackson movie, you get more crumbling walls, collapsing pillars, cascading boulders and impossible escape scenarios where naturally all the good guys escape. About the only ones guaranteed to die are orcs and other vile creatures. For Legolas and Tauriel never miss a shot. Part of their magic is an apparently inexhaustible supply of arrows. It’s amazing: no matter how many orcs come after them, they always have more arrows. It’s like they have semiautomatic rounds for their bows.

So if anything this action-adventure movie is more comfortable than it is keeping you on the edge of your seat. We certainly were comfortable, as our local theater has upscaled by putting in comfy overstuffed leather recliners where you actually reserve your seat. There’s more music by Howard Shore, borrowing endless bars from the Rings movies. There are scenes that seem eerily prescient of scenes in the Rings movies, such as one with Gandalf that looks a lot like the one that ended The Fellowship of the Rings, you know, the one with the Balrog in Moria.

If you like your dose of Peter Jackson unadulterated, rest assured he will deliver in this second installment. Middle Earth feels nice and homey, in spite of all the roaming orcs and wargs. Sauron even makes a guest appearance, and Bilbo finds that his magic ring comes in handy freeing dwarves from an elf dungeon in Mirkwood and eluding Smaug the dragon under the Lonely Mountain, where he searches for the bedazzling jewel, the Arkenstone among huge caches of loot.

If you weren’t too impressed with the first installment, the second is at least a bit more fun and faster paced. If you like lots and lots of special effects and crazy action scenes, you will want to see the movie multiple times. So far I find these Hobbit movies entertaining but not compelling. I’ll always own the Rings movies on DVD. I feel no reason to do so for this bloated and artificial trilogy. I’m not even sure I will bother to watch them again if the opportunity arises.

3.3 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

One thought on “Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

  1. I have not seen this movie yet, but I will! I am addicted I suppose…a whore for Peter Jackson’s versions of Tolkiens works. We own all of them & watch them more times than I want to admit to.

    I grew up on these stories. They were my favorites & I dog eared these books with re-reading them eight & ten times I admit, they still are among my most favorite books.

    The thing that mystifies me about these books is their classification as ‘children’s books’. If they refer to an 18-20 year old as a child, then yes, I suppose they were. But imo, I think these books fell to the era. Anything that was of a fantasy genre automatically fell to the assumption that they had to be children’s stories. Yet I believe that like Lewis Carroll, Tolkien was definitely written & directed at an adult audience. The book The Hobbit deals with the effects of greed & the temptations to abuse power. It undertakes a very nuanced psychological study of Bilbo’s character, which is very complex & develops in some quite unexpected directions. It even considers some very difficult philosophical ideas, such as the relationship between fate & free will, hard enough for some adults to grapple with, never mind children. Plus, unlike Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with some superficial delights for children, Tolkien doesn’t really ‘talk down’ in any way to make the story an easy read for youngsters. Unless of course they were way smarter than I was an an 8 yr old.

    Back to the movies…they take way too much license, I grant you that & there’s way more gore than I can handle at times. But to see the book(s) on the big screen for me is just wonderful, even tho’ there are flaws. It could be worse. Do you remember Ralph Bakshi’s endeavor? ‘Nuff said!

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