Reviews in the Nick of Time: The Everlastion of Smaug

by wjw on December 18, 2013

This afternoon I saw the second Hobbit movie, the second of three based on a modestly-sized children’s book by JRR Tolkien.

Not surprisingly, there is middle-of-the-trilogy syndrome.  The first part set up the characters and situation, and all will be resolved in the third movie; the middle begins no place in particular, and ends on a cliffhanger so you’ll be sure to see what’s next.

Fans of the novel will recognize the scenes with Beorn, the spiders, the Elf King’s jail, the escape via wine barrels, Lake Town, the Lonely  Mountain, and Bilbo’s verbal confrontation with Smaug.  (Bilbo spends a surprising amount of time chatting with monsters, both here and in the first film.)

Action drawn from the book, however, takes up only an hour or so of screen time, stretched out though it was. The other ninety minutes is padding.  It’s not bad padding, it’s entertaining enough, but it doesn’t advance the story in any meaningful way.

Mostly the padding is chase scenes, or battle scenes, or battling during a chase, or chasing while fighting a battle.  There’s a surprising amount of screen time devoted to politics in Lake Town.  There’s more time and special effects devoted to Gandalf’s mission in Dol Guldur— intrusive and annoying, because it takes us away from the plot we actually care about.  Legolas shows up for the purpose of slaying a few hundred orcs singlehanded— he’s not in the book, but is is the son of the Elf King, so it’s logical that he appears.  (Oddly enough, he looks older than when he appeared in the War of the Ring, by internal chronology sixty-odd years later.)  And there’s a love triangle between Legolas, an elf maid, and one of the dwarves— and I was fair gobsmacked by the notion that there was a woman somewhere who doesn’t want Legolas!  How Orlando hath fallen . . .

There’s also a fair amount of drama generated by putting the characters in false dilemmas.  Confronted with adversity, will Thorin persevere, or will he give up his quest (and prematurely end the movie)?  Will Thorin help Bilbo battle Smaug, or will he skedaddle?  We’re supposed to be in suspense over these problems, and we’re not.

As before, Martin Freeman’s Bilbo remains the heart and soul of the movie.  In a movie full of declaiming, Freeman manages to suggest Bilbo’s growth and character through very fine, carefully calibrated acting.  (It’s a blessing that Bilbo doesn’t have to carry exposition the way the other characters do.)

The other thing that carries the movie is the detailed, loving visualization of Middle-Earth.  Mirkwood is creepy in a glorious and magnificent way; Erebor is full of stunning visuals; Lake Town is beautifully and convincingly rendered; and the aerial domaine of the Elf King is wonderful, and appropriately just a bit more rustic than Rivendell.  (You can’t picture Elrond’s butler getting drunk and losing his keys.)  And Smaug’s snakelike creeping through the ruins of Erebor are just wonderful.

Much of the action in the chase and combat scenes was physically impossible, just as in the first movie, which demonstrated that characters made of pure CGI could fall two hundred feet, bouncing off rocks the whole way, and come off without harm because they landed on a fat dwarf.  (And the fat dwarf was unharmed, too.)

While this sort of thing usually ticks me off, it didn’t on this occasion.  Once I realized that what I was seeing was flat impossible, I didn’t take it seriously, and I could relax and enjoy the thrill ride.

And speaking of thrill rides, I couldn’t rid myself of the suspicion that many of the action scenes were constructed so as to be easily adapted to amusement park rides, or video games.  (Bob in barrels down the rushing river with Thorin and Company!  Surf down the river of molten gold with Thorin!  Run with Bilbo through the maze of Erebor with the dragon in hot pursuit!)

So . . . it’s visually stunning, fast-moving, and despite the length you won’t be bored.  Martin Freeman is splendid, and with all respects to Sir Ian McKellen, Smaug seems to be the second-best actor in the film.

I’ll be in line to see Hobbit III.


REWaters December 19, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Yeah, once you conclude that this really isn’t the book you grew up with, you can (as you say) sit back and enjoy the ride. I’m looking forward to the Battle of the Five Armies.

wjw December 20, 2013 at 2:22 am

So far as I can guess, the third movie will consist exclusively of the following:

1. Big Battle Scene: Smaug vs. Lake Town
2. Big Battle Scene: The Battle of Dol Guldur
3. Big Battle Scene: Battle of the Five Armies
4 Denouement.

It’s possible, however, that after the denouement will come many big battle scenes as Bilbo heads home to the shire.

Arno Ahonius December 20, 2013 at 5:45 am

Dear wjw. Your splendid analysis of Hobbit II makes me to doubt one of my sacred rules: Never to see a movie made of a book I have loved to read. I am even thinking about purchasing a DVD-device to select and replay the most attractive visual scenes.

Cordially your’s, Arno

Urban December 24, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Had decided not to see this, but I might change my mind now.

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