Sunday, December 15, 2013

Review: The Desolation of Smaug

Once upon a time there was a little boy who never said a word. For years and years he grew up, played, cleaned his room, obeyed his parents, and did all of it completely silently. His parents were convinced that he could not talk. One day, while eating dinner, the little boy said, "The soup's cold". His parents were ecstatic! They shouted and clapped and laughed! And when they had calmed down, his mother asked him, "Son... all your life you've been silent. You've never made a sound. And now you're speaking in complete sentences! Why now?" 
 The little boy answered, "Up to now everything's been OK."
Up to now I haven't done a review of Peter Jackson's film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's work. It's been OK. Better than OK, in fact. It's been bloody brilliant. But while his adaptation of The Hobbit is in some ways brilliant, in others it's... well... I have a few nits to pick. So here are my thoughts on The Desolation of Smaug (TDOS), understanding that there will be spoilers. In particular, I'm assuming that you've seen An Unexpected Journey (AUJ) and that you've read The Hobbit. If you don't like spoilers, here are some lolcats for you instead.

The Lord of the Rings had to be told in three films due to its sweeping scope. Some allowances had to be made for the linear structure of the novel(s) vs. the need to keep the audience invested in the various characters. And despite there being three films, some things simply had to be dropped (such as the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, the Barrow Downs, and the Scouring of the Shire). This is normal and to be expected when you are adapting a trilogy to the screen.

The Hobbit is not a trilogy. It's a single middling-sized book. Nevertheless, Peter Jackson's adaptation stretches to three films. Let me say categorically that, given this, with one exception, there is no excuse whatsoever for anything in the book to be left out. There just isn't a reason for it. Nevertheless it's happened. And why?  So that Jackson can insert material of his own devising in place of the much better source material. The one exception is the sleep enchantment on the stream in Mirkwood.

First, let's look at some good additions:
  • The storyline in the south of Mirkwood, dealing with the rise and supposed fall of "the Necromancer". If you're going to add anything at all, this is the thing to add. Gandalf otherwise just disappears for an extended period for no explained reason, only to come barging in at the end. Since the events are alluded to by Tolkien, this is a welcome addition.
  • Radagast is one of only three named Wizards in Middle-Earth. He's explicitly stated to have taken part in the defeat of the Necromancer. You can't have that story without him. Radagast is introduced at the right time... it makes sense that he would have discovered the Necromancer.
  • The characters of Legolas and Tauriel. If your characters are going to be imprisoned in the wood-elves' realm, then it stands to reason that we're going to meet a few of them.We know that Legolas is Thranduil's son, and that the elves are long-lived, so it's perfectly reasonable to see him here. Here and in Lake Town are the only opportunities to add female characters to this story, as The Hobbit has exactly none. Tauriel is a welcome addition. It's a shame they chose not to give Bard a wife as well.
  • The characters of Bard and the Master of Lake Town were well done. I like the dynamic there, with Bard's family having fallen out of political favor. Bard's shot will be well motivated by atonement for his ancestor's failure.
  • The Necromancer amassing an army and sending them North. Remember that the Necromancer is Sauron. He can sense the One Ring, and should know that it was used inside Erebor, which he knows to be a nigh-impregnable fortress. He wants that ring. The arrival of the orcs at The Battle of Five Armies is therefore motivated by that, and not at all by some jilted orc jefe desiring revenge.
  • The Last Light of Durin's Day was interestingly done. After all, the letters on the map were moon runes, and in the Lord of the Rings we've seen another dwarven door revealed by the light of the moon. However... the map said, "“Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.” It's all well and good that they played up the "last light" as being the moon, but it's a departure from the actual text. (when I originally wrote this I had seen the movie once and mis-remembered the phase of the moon, thinking it to be gibbous. Having seen it again, it is a waxing crescent, exactly as it should be.  This site tells you why. we know it was 2 days past the new moon, and therefore both "the last moon of Autumn" and on the same side of the mountain as the Sun so that both lights could shine upon the keyhole.)
 Now let's look at some stinkers:
  • There's no reason for Radagast to have traveled north to meet personally with Gandalf. It's flatly not in the story, even by allusion.  I know this happens in the previous movie, but I didn't review that, and it's one story. It stinks. They're Wizards. Surely they have some means of sending a message. As scripted, this was just a bit of unnecessary comedy fluff so that kids get to see a funny guy with shit on his head drive a rabbit-powered sledge, (By the way, The Once and Future King called. Merlin wants his bird shit back.)
  • Too many orcs. Yup, they're in the story, under the Misty Mountains and chasing the dwarves clear down to the Carrock. But the escape is an escape, and that's that. Shortly afterwards, the Necromancer would have called those orcs south. This does happen, after a fashion, in TDOS, but only half-heartedly. An apparent equal number of other orcs replace them. WTF!?. You've got orcs crawling all over the forest, orcs lining the river, orcs sneaking all over Lake Town, Orcs, orcs, orcs, orcs, orcs, orcs, orcs. Yes, I know that the filmakers believe the orcs wouldn't be discouraged evaded so easily. They're wrong. It's done with Beorn's help (and we dash through the Beorn encounter far too quickly in the movie) by means of taking the dangerous and rarely-used north path instead of the expected and well-worn southern path through Mirkwood. Also, the Necromancer's call wasn't optional. Again, this was just a Peter Jackson excuse for more hack-and-slash.
  • The elf rescue. This is a huge stinker. Bilbo's rescue of the dwarves from the spiders is important in raising his esteem in their eyes. Of course, Jackson already ruined that by turning Bilbo into a swashbuckling swordsman in AUJ, but his genuine heroism is casually tossed aside. Boo. Once again, this was a Jackson excuse for hack-and-slash. In the book the dwarves were tired, hungry, and without provisions, hoping to beg from the elves. There's nothing wrong with that meeting. 
  • Dwarves confronting Smaug. Seriously? Seriously?!? The dwarves properly sat on the doorstep waiting for their "burglar" to do the heavy lifting. I know, I know... the big question is how you get the audience to root for dwarves who are obviously greedy rotters. The answer is that you're not supposed to root for the dwarves!  The book is called THE HOBBIT, so root for the bloody hobbit. Once again we're given a shallow excuse for action! action! action! when the script should call for stealth, stealth, stealth and one big "OH SHIT!" moment. And oh, what action we get! We get literally unbelievable rivers of molten gold and sluice rides, and ore cart rides, and a giant melting statue. It's difficult to determine whether we're stealing from Indiana Jones or Star Wars in places. That's a crying shame, because The Hobbit doesn't need to steal from anybody.
  • The romance between Kili and Tauriel. Say what? WHY? 
The Necromancer story line is fine. They've made up the whole thing there, so who cares how they resolve it? But the stuff in the North is just obviously modern action film making sensibilities sucking the good out of a timeless story. In practically every case where they've screwed up, it's to inject unnecessary sword-swinging, when we could've got our fill of that in the South. Oh, look! There's Legolas being perfect! Oh, look! There's Legolas being perfect again! Oh, look! There's the fortieth highly improbable narrow escape! It's not just repetitive and boring, it lacks thought. These incidents would be better:
  • Beorn engages the orcs to the south, causing a diversion for the dwarves to escape undetected into the North Path. No more orcs. No orc that values his life would have blown off the summons of the Necromancer/Sauron. (Oh, wait. That's in the book!)
  • Radagast reports to Saruman and Galadriel, who send the message to Gandalf to join the White Council. The way TDOS is written, the Chief Wizard is cut out of decision-making, which is uncharacteristic and illogical. It also robs us of some quality Christopher Lee screen time as Saruman the White. We need this to fully appreciate it when he's "broken" into Saruman of Many Colors in LoTR.
  • Bilbo single-handedly rescues the dwarves from the spiders, who gain great respect for him as a result. (Oh, wait. That's in the book, too!)
  • While in Thranduil's jail, we're told of the wood-elves' starlight festival (which would have lured the dwarves away from the path in both Tolkien's book and my version of the film). When asked about it, Tauriel treats us to a small explanation that the Elves were the first race to awake on Middle-Earth, before the two trees, and before the Sun and Moon, when starlight was the only light. A beautiful, poetic moment that's never realized in TDOS. What a wasted opportunity. It's not in The Hobbit, but is well documented in The Silmarillion.  
  • If you absolutely need a romance, there's room for two. The dynamic between Tauriel and Legolas allows for one there unsullied by jealousy, but still given tension by Thranduil's disapproval. The second is to leave Bard a wife. Nothing of the plot is advanced by making him a widower, and his not having a confidante removes opportunities for exposition and pathos. She could be killed in the Smaug's attack, further motivating Bard's aim.
  • The escape from Thranduil's halls is a stealthy escape. It should have stayed that way, with no one being the wiser until the Dwarves were gone. (Oh, wait! That's in the book!) Then if you want to dispatch Legolas and Tauriel as scouts, then fine... it makes sense to have someone to report back news of Smaug's death prior to the Battle of Five Armies. But they shouldn't have to needlessly hack their way through orcs for it. Elves are smarter than that. 
  • The dwarves sit on their asses on the doorstep while Bilbo interviews the dragon, who concludes that Bilbo's a Lake man. Bilbo escapes narrowly, but cleanly with the aid of the Ring, and Smaug, enraged by the successful theft, then takes off to torch Lake Town while everybody shits their breeches rather than knowingly leave his halls filled with who-knows-how-many dwarves; something that's completely against his character. (Oh, wait! That's in the book!)
There are some things you can't improve on, even if your name is Peter Jackson. Tolkien's world is very thoroughly thought out. You could wow us by making additions that mesh well with what's already there, but attempts to make substantial changes simply fall flat.

There's one thing that demands special praise, though we saw too much of it in this film... the dragon himself, Smaug. This was a monumentally brilliant piece of animation, well voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug completely lives up to the hype. The dragon's design was spot-on... an anatomically plausible four-limbed creature. The visual build-up of internal fire gives a beautiful sense of dread toward what's coming next. Bravo.

Also, kudos for giving us a little glimpse of a dwarf woman, if only as a cameo picture.

"I was a dwarven adventurer- until I took an arrow to the knee"

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