So I Just Saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

For people looking for my opinion about whether you should see it in theaters: yes, if you want to see a big honking dragon do cool stuff in a pile of gold.  Otherwise, just wait until it comes out on video.

For people looking for my thoughts on the movie as a whole, I guess I’ll write some more.

My complaint about The Hobbit movies is a simple one.  Unlike many people, I’m not that irked about the expansion of the original children’s book into a nine hour saga (this excellent article discussing how Tolkien had to do a lot of background work to fit The Hobbit into the larger fantasy universe he created for The Lord of the Rings leaves me more generously inclined towards Peter Jackson for trying to adapt so much extra material that Tolkien had written to join the two works together).  No, my complaint is one that has very little to do with the story’s expansion but a whole lot to do with the fact that Peter Jackson apparently doesn’t have any self control when it comes to editing action scenes.

I’ll put it like this: if you have nine hours of movie to fill, and you’re pulling in extra material like the subplot surrounding Gandalf’s confrontation with Sauron as the Necromancer, then that’s okay.  I think those parts are actually quite good, and have no complaints about watching Ian McKellen be awesome in the face of overwhelming evil (I should probably follow him on Facebook).  It’s just all the other action scenes that drag on interminably.  You know, it’s hard to continue to be interested in what’s happening when every action sequence carries on for at least fifteen minutes (the climaxes of each movie that’s been released so far strike me as lasting closer to half an hour).  Let’s take as our example the end of Desolation of Smaug.

We all know that Bilbo sneaks into the Lonely Mountain and fails to avoid Smaug’s notice, and when Smaug realizes that Bilbo has pilfered something from the horde, he gets angry and decides that he’ll get his revenge on the inhabitants of Lake-town, who he deduces must have helped Bilbo get inside the Lonely Mountain.  It is not a spoiler to say that everyone knows Smaug dies because of Bard and his Black Arrow striking the spot where the dragon has a missing scale.  For me, the tension of the film revolved around whether we’d actually see that happen here in the second part, or if it was going to be saved for the third part.

I really wish Jackson had made the Battle of Lake-town the climax of this film.  See, instead of that natural narrative break (there’s still plenty of stuff to do after Smaug’s death, including the Battle of the Five Armies, which will undoubtedly be the climax for the third film; I’ve not even touched the fact that there still has to be a resolution for Gandalf’s subplot), we get a half hour Rube Goldberg machine that involves the dwarves using the forges inside the Lonely Mountain to douse Smaug with molten gold.

Let me repeat that so it can sink in.

Dwarves try to kill a dragon with molten gold.

Now, I’ll give the dwarves a pass for not knowing that a dragon in Middle-Earth lore is pretty much immune to heat (its fire is supposed to be comparable to that of Mount Doom–you know, the only place in Middle-Earth hot enough to melt the One Ring), because dragons are rare things, and maybe they just don’t know that that’s not really a viable option.  On the other hand, the entire dwarf schtick is that they’re a race of master craftsmen, so they should know that gold has a ridiculously low melting point–in point of fact, it makes no sense that Smaug’s fire never melts any gold during his rampage through his horde.

Combine this complete failure of in-universe logic with the fact that the audience knows Smaug doesn’t die inside the Lonely Mountain (even if there were any possibility that Jackson may have changed how events played out here, he seeds in enough Checkhov’s guns about the Black Arrow and the missing scale that everyone can see how this is going to go), and there’s no tension to the climax of the movie.  Bilbo and Thorin will be fine because they’re the protagonists, and the rest of the dwarves are reasonably safe from harm.  What we end up with is an elaborate sequence that’s utterly pointless, because even as a way of making Smaug angry enough to attack Lake-town, it fails.  The original explanation that Smaug’s petty and greedy and willing to punish an entire town for one piece of missing treasure (not even the Arkenstone originally, though it makes sense to change what Bilbo’s trying to steal into the MacGuffin) is perfectly satisfactory.  I mean, he’s a dragon, so there doesn’t have to be a whole lot of motivation established, and certainly nothing like being enraged over the way the dwarves outsmart him.

The end result is that we get a climax that doesn’t do anything but pad the film out and leave the audience wondering why anyone would think fire is the key to killing a fire-breathing dragon.

But otherwise I enjoyed the movie.

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