Review of “Desolation of Smaug”

January 2, 2014

I’ve gotta hand it to Peter Jackson & Co., they are really doing all they possibly can with this 300-ish page kids’ book.  I really did enjoy watching this second film, and I felt it was better than the first.  This may be because I am so ridiculously homesick for epic battles scored by Howard Shore that I’ll take what I can get, but I liked the movie lots.  (Fun fact I still tear up when I hear “Concerning Hobbits” and if you judge me you can go away now) Review contains spoilers for the movie, and for the LoTR movies, but I won’t spoil the end of the book or the third movie.

Normally, I’d break down a book-into-movie by saying what they kept right, changed right, and changed wrong, but there really isn’t a good way to do this here because very little is identical to the book.  So let’s just talk about things based on what I mostly liked and what I mostly didn’t.  I know, this is some highly sophisticated writing here DON’T JUDGE ME IT’S MY BLOG

Mostly positive
Smaug.  Was.  Amazing.  If you disagree, get out of here.  I had been looking forward to seeing and hearing the dragon for about forever because I am an unabashed Benedict Cumberfan, but even if he’s not your thing, the dragon was amazing.  Tolkien gave some great lines in his book for Bilbo’s confrontation with him (I really want to start going by “Greatest of Calamities”), but even the ones they threw in felt right.  Whoever worked on Smaug’s firebreathing needs some kind of award, and I’d also love to hand one out to whoever decided the extended jaunt with the dwarves through the mountain was a good idea.  Seeing what was left of the dwarves’ kingdom was both tragic and beautiful; the audience got to experience both what the dwarves had built and what had been taken from them.  A++++.  (I’ve also been enjoying how American English can’t handle the name.  We seem to insist on rhyming it with “smog” and can’t do it right.)

Mirkwood.  Oh my goodness, spiders.  The voices, the gross webs, the naming of Sting, just…yes.  It was great, Martin Freeman killed it as a slightly-Ring-obsessed Bilbo, and it was all just awesome.  I would say the same for all of Mirkwood: even though the sequence was condensed from the book, the weird confusion and the “sick-looking” forest all felt very on point.

Legolas.  No, he’s not in the book.  But you know what?  It was great to see him again, even with his intense super-creepy-blue eyes. (Ease up on the colored contacts, y’all.)  Throwing in the reference to Gimli was great, and with Thranduil legit being his father, it’s not totally unreasonable for him to be there.  I truly enjoyed watching him come around and shoot things and get off ridiculous trick shots and shooting people at point blank range and beheading orcs.  And yeah, the orcs.  Orlando Bloom is in the movies to look pretty and kill orcs and we can only have SO many shots of him staring prettily off into the distance.  So, orcs?  I’ll allow it.  Again, this might just be my homesickness for Middle Earth, but I’m really okay with his being there and shooting things.  It felt good.  It felt…right.  Everything is okay in the world when elves with long blond hair decapitate orcs through Rube Goldberg-like indirect actions.

Bard.  So, Bard the…bargeman?  We’re calling him that now?  ‘Kay. It took me till after the movie to realize he looks kind of like Will Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean, and with Orlando Bloom already being in the movie my brain was just kind of like “what’s happening who is this.”  I’m enjoying the little extra back story they gave him (yeah, give him two cute kids, sure, why not), and the arrows look hella cool, and the actor playing him is doing a fine job.   

Gandalf and Radagast Go Adventuring, like Legolas showing up, is also totally fine with me.  The book is written as Bilbo’s book, so we don’t see what Gandalf is off doing when he leaves (also the whole “Gandalf disappears and then pops back in at just the right time and is like ‘hey guys what’s up, oh, did you do all the hard stuff already? kewl'” thing is never not funny to me).  Clearly he’s doing something, and Sauron was for sure planning and plotting at this point, so the fact that they’re using these movies as a bit of a prequel to LoTR is A-OK with me.  More Ian McKellan always.

Mostly negative
Beorn felt…weird?  And underused?  The bear animation was great, and I actually don’t mind the way they changed the dwarves’ arrival, because Gandalf’s “That…is our host” got the biggest laugh from the audience out of the whole movie.  I just remember reading Beorn as a sort of weird, well-meaning, jolly giant dude who really likes animals.  Like, a Hagrid-esque character.  Movie Beorn was so serious and almost scary.  If you could encapsulate the feeling of a friends dinner party, in which one of the women brought her cage-fighting boyfriend to meet everyone for the first time, and the host brings out a giant plate of steaks, and the boyfriend quietly growls, “I’m a vegan.”  That discomfort and fear = Movie Beorn.  For me, at least.

Lake-town was…odd.  The overall structure was fine, and I enjoyed Stephen Colbert’s little cameo (don’t blink or you’ll miss it), but the styling seemed to be a bit off.  This is supposed to be a medieval-type era, but once we got into the town, the styling of everything felt very Les Mis.  Including and especially the costuming for the Master.  Like I get the town’s supposed to be in bad shape, but I was waiting for Javert to pop out from behind the Master and sing-arrest someone.  Or the townspeople to burst into “Do You Hear the People Sing” as the dwarves head to the mountain.  “I dreamed a dream of Erebooooooor”

So far all this stuff has been superficial likes/dislikes, but the last part here discusses some pretty shitty handling of both race and gender in this movie.

Race: yep, Middle-Earth is hella white, and better people than me have analyzed this and Tolkien’s treatment of race as a whole, so I’m not going to even attempt to do that here.  However, I can comment on something that was super dumb in this movie.  After two or so hours of literally all white people, the confrontation between Thorin and the Master of Lake-town and Bard happens, and the crowd is scanned by the camera.  Several of the townspeople have dark skin.  They do not speak.  The movie then continues and it is all white people from then on, too.

This is not how you do inclusiveness, people!  If you truly cared about representing everyone, you could have cast a POC for Bilbo or Thorin or (this would be best!) one of the elves.  A black Thranduil would have worked quite nicely, since the elves seem to suffer most from the “good people are pretty and super Caucasian” treatment that happens in Tolkien’s works.  You do not just throw in a scan of their face and give them no lines and pretend like it’s all good.  It’s almost worse to do this, in my opinion, than to keep the movie completely white.  This is because in your way, you show that yes, there are people of color in this world, but they don’t matter at all.  I’m sorry, but two half-second shots of a black woman’s face does not give you accolades for awareness.

And here we come to my fave thing: sexism.  Evangeline Lilly (who is a legit Tolkien fan and went all out in weapons training and learning Elvish, so this is not her fault) was cast as Tauriel, one of the Mirkwood elves, a character who does not appear in the book.  Her existence is not ridiculous, as there is an elf guard whose members are not named, and could very well be female.  I didn’t mind so much her inclusion when I first saw it, and figured they were just trying to throw an Arwen + Eowyn badass lady-fighter into the movie, and thought nothing of it.

THEN, I saw the movie.  Her character has a flirtation with Kili, one of the two youngest dwarves, and it is hinted that others have paired her and Legolas in their minds.  Kili is shot by an orc at one point in the film, and when he and Tauriel are reunited, she heals him with vague elf-magic in the most uncomfortable scene in the movie.  She comments that he is tall, for a dwarf, and he says to her after he’s been healed that she “cannot be here, she is far away, I must be dreaming, wow, such elf, so beauty, much ear point” or something equally idiotic.

“The Hobbit” is a bro-fest, we know.  But again, if you’re trying to be inclusive of women, don’t cast them as a collection of the dumbest, pandering tropes known to the genre and invent an unnecessary romance.  Did you think women wouldn’t see the film if one of the dwarves didn’t get some by the end of the movie?  Did you cast her and give her stupid, weepy lines and decide that you had fully developed the character and called it a day?  Did you write down in your script notes that Tauriel is “Not Like Other Elf-Girls”?  Try harder, or just let Cate Blanchett be in every scene.  Your choice. 

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  • Reply Wendy January 2, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    I would have like it better if there was no Legolas and Tauriel just rolled in and saved everyone's ass as a general Eff You to Thranduil being a tool. And if you really want Kili can hit on her and she can toss some herbs at him, roll her eyes, and head back to the forest. Boom.

  • Reply Dianne January 2, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    Sounds like it's time for some LOTR/Les Mis crossover fanfiction….

  • Reply Christina Cozzetto January 10, 2014 at 10:43 pm

    I seriously hope that means you're volunteering to write some. 🙂 I'd love a Thorin/Smaug version of The Confrontation…

  • Reply Christina Cozzetto January 10, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    I so so wish your last sentence was what actually happened. They had the potential to just let a lady elf shoot things and be awesome but noooo


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