The Desolation of Smaug

I saw the latest Hobbit installment on opening weekend, so this review is a bit late. That's okay. If it's a movie you planned to see, my review wasn't going to keep you home, and if it's a film you're just not interested in seeing, my review won't put you into a theater seat. Y'all don't need my help with this decision.

I loved it. Every minute. I loved the stuff that isn't in the book, I loved the stuff that is. I love the additions and the changes. I applaud the addition of an actual antagonist and I think the addition of a love triangle is brilliant, and risky, and I trust the Wingnut Films team to stick the landing on that.

There were some parts that stuck in my craw, but only a little. The Sauron reveal reminded me of a Jefferson Airplane music video (now that I've said that there are a few of you who will not be able to un-see it, I am so sorry) and the dwarves' finger prosthetics (chunky-finger gloves) were distracting at times. 

If we are comparing books to movies, this movie feels like an epic fantasy novel from which a very short, condensed "The Hobbit" might eventually be made, causing people to complain about all the things that were cut. And if that comparison beats around the bush too much, try this one: I think this movie trilogy is what Tolkien's books could have been if his storytelling chops were on par with his worldbuilding

Oh, snap, I went there. Light the torches...

Quick side-note: Erno Rubik, the guy who invented the Rubik's Cube, was not the guy who invented the fastest solution.

Lovers of epic fantasy, or of any genre fiction in which deep, consistent worldbuilding is featured, owe a great debt to Tolkien, and most of us have a special fondness for his work. But for all that, epic fantasy has come a long way since his pioneering voyage into Middle Earth. Few, if any, modern epics boast world building on the level of Tolkien's, but these days they all include more details about the characters. We follow plots not because the narrator tells us what is happening, but because characters experience what is happening. We are shown, not told.

The Hobbit trilogy? It's showing us Middle Earth, not telling us about it.

Tolkien's The Hobbit weighs in at 95,000 words, and places fifteen characters on an arduous, adventure-filled trek from The Shire to Erebor. But those 95,000 words only show us Bilbo in any real detail. Most of the dwarves are short, stocky, bearded cardboard cut-outs. The story is a travelogue during which our protagonist finds an artifact, finds his center, awakens a dragon, and then watches as the greatest armies in Middle Earth march onto the same plain. It's a fine story, to be sure, but it only scratches the surface of what's going on. Who is Bard? Who is Fili? Can the enmity between Thorin and Thranduil be demonstrated, rather than offered as a data-point? Why didn't Gandalf show up when he was supposed to? Was he doing something important?

That's what The Desolation of Smaug gives us -- character after character after character to delve into, identify with, pity, or despise. We are immersed in Middle Earth, and like Bilbo above Mirkwood's canopy, we can see the forest and see all the trees. It's delightful. 

Some will argue that the film's departures from the text are heretical. You know what else was heretical? Galileo's heliocentrism. So yeah, I'm down with the occasional heresy. Besides, the film's writers (Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, and Guillermo Del Toro) did not change Tolkien's book. That book is still there, text unchanged, a landmark piece of literature people will continue to enjoy and revere for generations to come. What the Wingnut Films team did was similar to what an author might do when an editor says "we love this short story you wrote. Turn it into a novel. No, wait... turn it into three novels." 

Except it wasn't their story to begin with, so yeah, I can see why you've lit those torches and OW cut it out with the pitchfork already! You should be ashamed of yourself. Go home and read a book or something. I KNOW JUST THE ONE.

Back to the point: I loved this film. It's not perfect, but for sheer quantity of in-theater fun, it's my favorite of the year. Also, it's going to have more staying power than most of the rest of the list. I'm excited for the final installment next year, and yes, sometime in 2015 I'll be sitting down to nine hours of rich food and Blu-Ray.

Technical note: I saw the 3D HFR version first, and then the 2D version. I did not notice downsampling artifacts, though I did notice those when I watched the 2D version of An Unexpected Journey. If you're balking at the price or the headache of 3D, the 2D version will serve you just fine this time around.

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