-Diego "Dragoon" Hernandez
Critiquing the Lord of the Rings trilogy by director Peter Jackson isn't the easiest thing in the world. Also, neither is directing three epic length movies based upon three volumes of twentieth century mythology. Thus, while there has always been an expectation of a fairly accurate adaptation for any film based on fantasy literature, there hasn't really been a precedent for the LOTR movies with the exception of that one craptacular animated film that no one remembers.
Of course, even the bravery inherent in tackling such a mammoth project can't explain the enormous success of the LOTR series. Those flicks did virtually everything that epic myths are meant to do and earned A's in production, direction, soundtrack, and pretty much every other category that you can name. However, perhaps most incredible of all was LOTR's ability to get people to sit still and pay attention for over three hours per film, which, in an age of texting, fast food, and television commercials, is tantamount to turning water into wine.
Perhaps this is why a number of critics have expressed disappointment with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (I haven't read the reviews for Desolation of Smaug). In order to compete with the earlier films based on later literary material, the team behind AUJ and DOAS have added new content to J.R.R. Tolkien's mythos, some of it worthwhile, some of it not so much.
Picking up where AUJ left off, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and his crew of loyal dwarves continue to The Lonely Mountain, the former Dwarf Kingdom and current home to Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch, who has so wonderfully changed his voice to a gravely concrete growl that it sounds like he's tearing his way into a bloody T-Bone) , one of the most terrifying mothers in all of Middle Earth. Along the way, Bilbo and company must encounter the Orc chieftain Azog (Manu Bennett), hostile wood elves, and a small fishing village named Lake-town once obliterated by Smaug. Concurrently, Bilbo begins to use the ring that he obtained from Gollum/Smeagol (Andy Serkis) in the previous story more and more, and Gandalf begins to investigate the cause of the evil growing across Middle Earth. Eventually, all the side-stories result in what many people probably paid to see in the first place: the epic showdown between little ol' Bilbo and gargantuan ol' Smaug.
I'm going to guess that cinephiles have waited to see Smaug ever since AUJ mercilessly teased everybody with that agonizingly small glimpse of the Big Bad Dragon. I will get Smaug out of the way first and assure you that, yes, Smaug does indeed bring the pain. Granted, you don't exactly need to be C.S. Lewis to effectively utilize one of the greatest monsters in all of Western mythology, but nonetheless DOS' film crew knock it out of the ball park when it comes to effectively realizing Bilbo Baggins' greatest enemy of all time ( Incidentally, if anyone wants to write a story about Bilbo finding a Chinese Dragon, that would be fine with me: “Ho ho ho! Hello, little hobbit! You have done well to find me and my cave! Come, take this treasure as your reward and make it rain!”) Smaug looks great, Smaug sounds great, and Smaug's insufferable greed and pride vividly bring the nightmare of European mythology to life. Smaug too helps emphasize Tolkien's original message that even the smallest of people can overcome the greatest of obstacles. In the earlier films, that message had appeared in the form of the hobbits prevailing against Sauron and his massive army. In DOS, this kind of defiance takes shape in the form of Bilbo and his dwarf allies attempting to stop Smaug once and for all. The battle first starts with Smaug and Bilbo in a den completely floored with treasure, and the contrast is immediately obvious: compared to Bilbo, Smaug is the size of a skyscraper. With little in the way of options, Bilbo attempts to stall Smaug with false flattery while evading the winged serpent and simultaneously attempting to recover the Arkenstone (a shining jewel which will give Thorin Oakenshield the right to rule his people). This set-up results in an intense chase, skillfully getting viewers to root for the underdog while accentuating just how bad-ass Smaug really is. Eventually, the dwarves enter the fray, and as impressive as the fights have been throughout Jackson's Tolkien cycle, the fight between the hobbit and the dwarves versus the dragon is the best and most interesting clash in the movie. Here the dwarves cannot simply gore their way through their enemies. Against Smaug, the pint-sized burglar and the pint-sized warrior actually use their brains to slayeth the dragon, resulting in a extensive battle in which Oakenshield, Bilbo, and their comrades use whatever they can within the Lonely Mountain's dilapidated factory in order to bring down their arch-nemesis. I like sword and sorcery fights as much as the next guy/gal, but this strategic battle against Smaug was ultimately a breath of fresh air and a fine climax to the film.
Which brings me to perhaps the most glaring flaw of DOS. You see, DOS is actually the second part of a trilogy of films, not the last movie of the Hobbit series. This cannot be a spoiler because if you google Desolation of Smaug, you will be able to immediately see to the right side of your screen the basic information regarding DOS, including the fact that there will be a sequel called There and Back Again. If the reaction of the audience at my movie theater, a unique mixture of amusement and exasperated anger, was any indication, the marketing team behind DOS should have announced as loudly as they could that it's the second, not the last film of the Hobbit series. I've checked the trailers on YouTube and while the info under the About tab states that DOS is indeed the second installment of a trilogy, none of the trailers themselves admit this. Furthermore, its not as if this would kill off all excitement for DOS. If you were to use the right kind of rhetoric, like say, “The epic second installment of Peter Jackson's Hobbit Trilogy” , then you wouldn't have so many upset by the rather abrupt ending. It's not like people took up arms when they learned that Frodo and Sam had to ramble on after the end of The Two Towers. So long as TABA goes out with as big a bang as it can muster, I don't really mind paying another fifteen dollars and spending another three hours watching the conclusion, but I can understand the frustration of those who might feel like they've been screwed over.
Which proves to be a problem with AUJ and DOS. Because when you decide to direct a trilogy of movies based on three volumes worth of epic mythology and then decide to follow that up with a (you hope) even greater set of films based on a child's novel that started the whole she-bang that, while supremely entertaining, could not fairly be expected to reach the depths of its later sequels... well, I think you may have reversed time and space in such a way that not even Doc and Marty will be able to find their way home. Consequently, the film adaptation of DOS has been given new material in order to compete with its film predecessors. However, I don't consider myself a purist, and I can understand why DOS veers away from its primary source: because to do a film based purely on The Hobbit novel would be to make a film deliberately inferior to the LOTR films. That may sound harsh, but then consider comparing The Stand to all of Stephen King's Dark Tower series (The Stand was great, but I thought things got even better with the Dark Tower series. Of course, if you expect a single novel to compete with an entire series of novels, you might as well expect Rocky to take on Apollo, Mr. T and Drago all at once.)
That leaves me with the judgment of the new stuff, mostly good but with some draw-backs. Evangeline Lilly playing kick-ass elf chick Tauriel, a new character in the Tolkien mythos? Can't complain much about that, for some reason. On the other hand Orlando Bloom reprising his role as Legolas felt largely derivative and mostly like an attempt to lasso in some old LOTR fans with a familiar and popular character (If you're like me, you'll resent Legolas for trying to get between the literally inter-racial romance between Tauriel and Kili (Aidan Turner): Its your own fault for obeying your fascist of a Elf king father, pretty boy. Still, it was pretty cool the way you actually began to brawl with some of those orcs...) And although in the novel Bilbo and his escape the prison of the Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace) by hiding in barrels going down a river, the chaotic, simultaneous river battle between Dwarf, Elf, and Orc is an exciting and fun addition (One moment of the sequence actually got the audience and I to laugh and gasp for about forty seconds straight). Likewise, Gandalf's pursuit to discover the source of the evil growing in Middle Earth is about as cool as a wizard with a sword fighting Orcs and then eventually the pre-incarante form of a familiar villain (Which is to say, incredibly cool). I can't say who this big, bad kingdom leveler is, but I can say that as unsurprising as his appearance is its also nice to have him back. True, the logic behind Gandalf confronting, eh, “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” is a bit wonky, but seeing McKellen pull off some Doctor Strange moves has a way of making me forget that.
Now you can say whatever you want about AUJ and DOS, but you can't make the case that Jackson and his team haven't worked their hands to the bone when it came to these movie's technical wizardry. Like its older film siblings, DOS excels in production, cinematography, sound, and pretty much everything you can name. To put it another way, DOS looks like Jackson has bled New Zealand's entire budget dry. It also seems like Jackson takes cues from other trippy films: the visions that Bilbo and the Dwarves suffer in Mirkwood is almost like they smoked a bad batch of pot and Gandalf's encounter with You-Know-Who is like something out of a terrifying acid trip. Thus, although it may be argued that DOS' story is flawed, it is clear that Jackson and co. are not only dedicated to passing on the technical brilliance of the LOTR series to The Hobbit series but also to also to interpret the source material with a satisfying amount of innovation.
Is DOS or AUJ as heavenly, divine, and transcendent as the LOTR movies? Nooooooo. Then again, because of the reversal of chronology, I really only hoped that the new Hobbit movies would be reasonably entertaining compared to the earlier films. In that respect, both DOS and AUJ have succeeded. The LOTR films rewrote the rules on what we should expect from cinema; like AUJ, DOS is simply a fun and compelling fantasy flick. DOS isn't the blaze of glory that others were probably hoping for, but DOS is still well worth another trip into Middle Earth.
--Diego "Dragoon" Hernandez