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The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug Review: Not really Tolkien’s Middle-earth anymore

The moment the movie ended I was left with an almost unbearable mix of emotions. It had been truly entertaining and filled with both breathtaking action and memorable performances. Martin Freeman once again proved to be an excellent Bilbo Baggins with his subtle humor and incredible timing.  But, and it is a rather huge but, it was not the Hobbit I had watched. It was something very loosely based on the Hobbit, with deviations from the source material to the point where it almost didn’t feel like an adaption at all. If you had a problem with Azog making a guest appearance in the first installment you will find the Desolation of Smaug ten times more frustrating.

bilbo
Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo Baggins is one of the highlights.

The Desolation of Smaug has recieved significantly better early reviews than An Unexpected Journey did. I guess this is partly because the HFR is not in focus this time but also because it is a better movie. Better pacing, more action, less introduction, more humor. It also features previously unseen territories of Middle-earth and it turns out they’re really breathtaking. They have really managed to capture the hopelessness of Mirkwood, the greatness of the Halls of Thranduil and grand majesty of the Lonely Mountain. I think if J.R.R. Tolkien would have been happy about something in this movie it would have been how they have recreated Middle-earth. John Howe and Alan Lee has once again proven their excellence as conceptual artists.

gandalf
Ganadlf’s journey after he leaves Thorin and company at the edge of Mirkwood
is just one of many odd deviations from the source material.

What J.R.R. Tolkien would not have been happy about is how they have altered the story. The biggest concern among fans has been with the introduction of the elf Tauriel. She is not the problem (or at least a very small one) and definitely not because she is a woman. Sure, Legolas and Tauriel may distract the audience away from the main plot, and I am not a fan of the love story surrounding Tauriel, but I don’t see a problem with the addition of Tauriel as a new character in itself. A bigger problem is instead how Azog is essentially chasing Thorin & Co. throughout the entire movie, even in Mirkwood and after Mirkwood. Even worse is what Gandalf does after he leaves the Dwarves at the edge of Mirkwood. It completely goes against what we know of the history of the Witch-king. There is also a new part added inside Erebor including the Dwarves and Smaug which borders on the absurd. I will not say more about the deviations to avoid spoilers but they are many and they are extensive.

In many ways the movie could be seen as a two and a half hour showreel for WETA Digital and they have definitely done a masterful job with some of the special effects. However, the movie relies too heavily on CGI which makes everything look fabricated. It is just too much. The whole movie is essentially one long chase (Azog is still after them you know) and we get to see action scenes every ten minutes. Some of them, particularly those including the elves, are outright ridiculous and looks taken directly out of a videogame. Remember that scene in the Two Towers when Legolas does his kick-ass shield slide? There are tons of scenes like that in this one and I was mostly left with a feeling that the whole thing was absurd.

But then there was the dragon. Finally! Too bad it took two hours before we got to see him. Smaug was so much better than I imagined he would be. His appearance, both gracious and terrifying, his chilling voice and a brilliant scene with him and Bilbo inside the mountain helped turn the movie around.

erebor

The movie had a handful of really great moments and as a pure action movie it will certainly appeal to a lot of people. Unfortunately, a few highlights is not enough and it does not honor the source material the way the Lord of the Rings trilogy did. Bryan Bishop at The Verge sums it up quite nicely in his review when he writes: “When The Desolation of Smaug is at its best, you can almost glimpse the sleeker, more straightforward adaptation of The Hobbit that could have been“. I consider myself quite liberal when it comes to adaptions of Tolkien’s works but this was just too much. They should have known when enough was enough. It’s not Tolkien’s Middle-earth anymore.

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