Ryan: The two biggest issues I had with An Unexpected Journey were the jarring visual effects and the propulsive-yet-somehow-mundane narrative arc, which mostly consisted of the heroic ensemble scurrying from one perilous threat only to wind up in another. Fortunately, The Desolation of Smaug found a way to make the former much more palatable and, thanks to some thrilling action set pieces, the latter more compelling, even if the plot followed a similar structure. The Hobbit still feels like a lesser franchise compared to LotR, of course, but even as Smaug juggled a few competing story threads that felt decidedly like rest stops en route to an epic conclusion, it also more fully realized the nascent threat of Sauron, which helped raise the stakes. I have a few minor quibbles with the film, but overall I found it a much more enjoyable watch than An Unexpected Journey, and I’d like to get your general thoughts on Smaug before I delve into the nitty-gritty.
Tim: Judged against The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hobbit films (the first two, anyway) can’t help but feel less substantial. But what’s wrong with that? If you scale back your expectations, An Unexpected Journey and (especially) The Desolation of Smaug are perfectly serviceable — and frequently outstanding — moviemaking on a grand-scale. The characters aren’t as vivid and the battles between good and evil aren’t as weighty, but as pure spectacle, Smaug mostly delivers. Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage make for fine leads, and Ian McKellen brings gravitas by just showing up. The forest infested by giant spiders shows that Peter Jackson hasn’t lost his affinity for the creepy crawlies, and even though the barrel escape/orc battle may defy the laws of physics (and logic), it’s really exciting. The set design remains impeccable — the M.C. Escher-like twists of the elf lair, the creeky wooden man-made island town of Esgaroth, and the the tight stairs and vast rock sculptures that line the Lonely Mountain are vivid and picturesque. And the scene in which Bilbo enters Smaug’s vast treasure chamber emanates a sense of I’ve-got-a-bad-feeling-about-this dread that echoes the space slug scene in The Empire Strikes Back. Sure, it’s probably at least 20 minutes too long (I have a sneaking suspicion that when it’s all said and done, the three Hobbit movies could be trimmed into one killer three-hour feature). But stretched-to-the-limit Peter Jackson is still more imaginative that just about any other blockbuster director out there.
Ryan: I remember some folks grumbling about the barrel scene when Smaug first came out, and I get that the physics are a little wonky, but like you, I thought it was pretty exciting. The action is visceral, inventive and easy to follow, if a tad cartoony, and the Mirkwood elves come off looking absolutely badass. But as long as we’re talking about that scene, I do feel the need to mention the level of violence in the film: there are a lot of decapitations and point-blank arrows to the face. I didn’t really have a problem with it, and in my opinion the orcs make for much more exciting action scenes than CGI trolls, CGI goblins, or CGI spiders, but I can’t deny I was surprised by the sheer brutality of it, however bloodless it might have been.
You also make a great point about the production design and Peter Jackson’s craftsmanship in general. I still think a Guillermo del Toro version of The Hobbit would have been really interesting, but there’s an explicit familiarity in what we’ve seen so far in Journey and Smaug that feels like a warm blanket — a slightly timeworn blanket with a few rough patches here and there, but a warm one nonetheless — and it makes it difficult to imagine anyone else in the director’s chair.
Having said all this, there were still a couple of things that bothered me about Smaug, which, to be clear, I thought was a far superior film to An Unexpected Journey. I could have done without the elf-dwarf romance between Tauriel and Kili, although I liked Evangeline Lilly; it felt completely unnecessary to me. The rest of the dwarves, save for Thorin and maybe Balin (the old, “voice of reason” dwarf), remain largely indistinguishable from each other. And there really isn’t anything substantive about the story, which essentially amounts to “a bunch of dwarves walk home… but there’s a dragon there!” I can see why Peter Jackson felt the need to shoehorn in the rise of Sauron. Honestly, I was much more intrigued by the history between the dwarves and the elves — briefly referenced in the film — and it seems we may get some of that in The Battle of the Five Armies, so I’m looking forward to the franchise ending with a bang.