Blowin’ Smaug Up Our Asses

Why An Unexpected Journey Was Superior to The Desolation of Smaug

The verdicts – or reviews – are in: Based on everything I’ve read or heard, from critics to the average movie-goer alike, The Desolation of Smaug takes last year’s “inferior” Unexpected Journey and builds upon it in every way, finally delivering, or at least getting closer to, what audiences expected.

The film seems to have won over both professional and amateur critics, earning a 75% ‘Fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to the original movie’s 65%. IMDB appraised Smaug with a metascore of 66/100, whereas Journey only earned a paltry 58/100 (though, interestingly, the user reviews on both aforementioned sites are remarkably similar for the two movies, different only by one-tenth of a percent). Various reviews laud the second film as “more tightly paced and action-oriented than its predecessor” and “even more entertaining”, and the Huffington Post commands its readers, “For the love of whatever you consider holy or hold dear, if you love fantasy or even just like it, GO SEE THIS MOVIE NOW.” Sounds convincing.

So why do I feel so utterly unimpressed by this sequel, when I can (and have) watch and rewatch the first part of the trilogy again and again, and come away with a far greater degree of movie-going satisfaction?

Before the unkind comments, hate mail, envelopes filled with anthrax, and letter bombs start coming in, let me explain that I did everything humanly possible to give Smaug a fair shot and make absolutely sure of my opinion before I wrote even one word about it. I watched the movie not once but twice. Well, okay, to be fair I also went to see Journey twice, but that was due to its pure enjoyment factor; this time it’s simply for the purpose of fact checking and soul-searching. (Either way, I guess Peter Jackson’s still laughing all the way to the bank…)

Ere I go on, in case this is in any way necessary and you’re reading this without having seen the movies, beware of major spoilers ahead!

All Aboard: A Hollywood Recipe for Sequel-Making

There certainly is a whole lot of “more” in Desolation: more Smaug, more elves, more political webs woven, more flashbacks, more (somewhat) arbitrary ties to the events in Lord of the Rings, more peril, more gratuitous limb severings and head decapitations, more Legolas, more fan service, and just overall a whole lot more stuff that had absolutely no place in Tolkien’s original work!

Through the magic of Peter Jackson's "Rewriting Pen", this classic encounter could have played out quite differently

Through the magic of Peter Jackson’s “Rewriting Pen”, this classic encounter could have played out quite differently

In contrast, if memory serves, Journey stuck pretty faithfully to the itinerary established by the book. While certain sections of dialog may have been altered or added, it does represent an accurate translation of the book. From Bag End to Trollshaws, from Rivendell to Goblin-Town, we get to relive the journey’s events and meet the characters – both dastardly and well-intentioned – that we’d expect. Imagine the outrage if Tom, Bert, and William had been dispatched in melee combat by the dwarves, or if perhaps Aragorn (yes, he would have a young man in his twenties at the time) had happened along and saved the day! Exactly.

But the list of “mores” could honestly be three times as long – most of them were very enjoyable! I understand (begrudgingly) that a movie is a separate entity from the book it’s based on, that the Hollywood studio system puts profit over literary fidelity, and that three movies stand to earn three times as much as a single one will. It’s simple economics, and I’m no fool. Anyway, why complain? Perilous violence and fire-breathing dragons are a great fit for a medieval adventure epic on the big screen.

A Change in Tone

For me, what really hurt the movie – especially when compared to its predecessor – isn’t what is displays in excess; rather, I found myself missing the one element that felt crucial to my enjoyment of Journey, and really to The Hobbit as a whole: The dynamic of Thorin’s company was completely lost and pitched by the wayside in this movie!

In the initial film, we were treated to many scenes featuring the company of dwarves, and really got a sense of character for many, if not all, of the twelve dwarves that we’d be spending the next 9-10 hours with. It’s why I particularly enjoy the scenes set in Hobbiton, though I’ve heard quite a number of complaints about a “slow start” to the movie (“yawnfest”, as 3AW’s Jim Schembri calls it); watching the dwarves interact with each other, learning and seeing some of their unique character quirks – all things that a lot of design work obviously went into! – was vital for me to root for them on their quest and feel a sense of dread whenever they found themselves in danger.

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The first movie provided time and ample room to get properly acquainted with – and grow to like – each dwarf as an individual

In Desolation, much of that has been left behind. From the very beginning, starting with the arrival of Thorin’s company at Beorn’s house, the movie set a very impersonal tone for itself. I had been rather looking forward to seeing Gandalf handle the tricky task of introducing the dwarves to Beorn, asking them to arrive one at a time so as not to upset their host too greatly but rather trick him into welcoming the entire party. An opportunity for warm humor – which is really what set The Hobbit apart from LOTR – could have been (but wasn’t) taken advantage of here. Not to mention a chance to give each dwarf a brief character moment to kick the new movie off with.

Instead, it became a frantic chase scene, followed by uninteresting dialog, and off we go to the next stop of the journey. As Vue Weekly’s Brian Gibson aptly states, “[the] trilogy sinks under the middle-weight of its sheer desolation, becoming baggy, boggy, saggy and smaugy,” calling it a “slogging quest-opera” and pointing out its “stony dialogue”.

And then there was Lake-Town.

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