Martyn Perry’s review published on Letterboxd:
(Includes Smaug spoilers but not too much detail)
Can Peter Jackson overcome the “like butter scraped over too much bread?” memes (i.imgur.com/vnKz6BM.jpg) and the frequent criticism levelled at his Hobbit trilogy? Does the film deliver a satisfying conclusion to the story of The Hobbit and integrate nicely with the beginning of his original trilogy? Well, as with the majority of other popular reviews, it’s both yes and no.
The positives? After SO much criticism and so many mixed reviews, I wasn’t expecting much in all honesty. “One big fight” was heard a lot, “where’s Gollum?” was another from the Serkis fan club and “why is Smaug only in it for ten minutes?” was another. To be honest, the “one big fight” comment is harsh, this film is a lot more than just a long battle sequence and actually builds the story and tension really nicely once the opening action scene and resolution to last year’s cliff-hanger is done and dusted.
As for these opening dragon scenes? They’re good. Of course, they absolutely had to be after the standards set from The Hobbit trilogy’s finest movie. I for one really don’t mind the ending to The Desolation of Smaug, when seen as an entire trilogy it actually works really well. I mean, if Smaug lay defeated at the end of the second movie and we were left once again looking at a mountain, where would the excitement come from for the beginning of this film?
As it stands, we’re straight into the action with Smaug the dragon in all his glory ripping Laketown to shreds. The effects are stunning, Cumberbatch’s dragon still gets a few lines of sinister, snarling dialogue, and Luke Evans as Bard gets to go all out hero mode. It works, it’s fun and the final scenes of Smaug’s existence are truly breath taking, with the dragon’s final seconds of life amazingly represented on screen. Fans of dragons may be better off with all of the dragon action in the second movie, but you still get a satisfying conclusion and Smaug certainly makes good his promise, he is fire, and he’s definitely death.
At this point in the movie I was very satisfied with how things were going and once we get into the meat of the story, things continue to be just as enjoyable too. Bilbo has a dilemma on his hands, what to do with the Arkenstone and how to deal with Thorin’s slow descent into madness. All of this steady build up to the battle is well delivered on screen whilst Bard the Bowman and Lee Pace’s elf join the mix of armies beginning to huddle around the Lonely Mountain for what’s inside.
Both Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage are excellent in these opening stages, and whilst the Laketown fallout scenes can sometimes veer into the overly cheesey (especially with Alfrid and Bard on the riverbank) they’re still worthy of inclusion and help to flesh out the limited meat on Tolkien’s lean bones of the final chapters of The Hobbit. Each character’s motives are firmly established, and the mix of dwarves, orcs, men and elves make for a good bit of fantasy politics before the swords start swinging.
Jackson does this tense stand-off sequence well, and whilst the vast majority of the humour from the first two movies and all of the songs have gone, we do get a few good laughs (a troll self-sacrifices to smash down a wall and knocks himself unconscious, Bilbo admits rather sheepishly to escaping from the elven prisons, Gandalf takes an inappropriately long time to prepare his pipe for smoking), but we also get what we paid for too, a bloody big battle.
Whilst the sequences with Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman were fun in the earlier stages of the movie, it really is the final fight which provides all of the action and excitement. The battle sequence is good fun as we all know that Jackson can deliver oh so well. Billy Connolly’s typically sweary dwarf joins the action and Orlando Bloom continues re-finding his mojo with some very fun Legolas action. Jackson also does a wonderful job at mixing up the fighting with the sub-plots, developing story elements and an unexpected change of environment. We go from some familiar battlefields to an amazing sequence on a frozen waterfall. I won’t spoil things here, but I loved Thorin’s contribution to the action and every element of the Azog action scenes on the frozen waterfall. When reading The Hobbit you did wonder going into this movie if he could deliver something truly unique and substantially different to what we’ve seen before, and whilst we undoubtedly get pangs of deja-vu from Helms Deep and Gondor, this icy landscape gives us something new.
Unfortunately though, there really are some bad bits, and just some downright uncharacteristically clumsy elements too. These do mar the experience and take the movie down a notch from the Everest summiting heights of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Take for example the overuse of the comedy sidekick Alfrid. This was once an intermittently funny minor character to Stephen Fry’s Master of Laketown, now in this third movie he’s promoted to one of the main players. This is not a good decision, and the scenes where he’s cross dressing to evade the battle are just a little bit too Punch & Judy for the likes of Middle Earth. Another mess was a very subtle hint for Legolas to go and find Aragorn towards the end of the film. Wait. No. Not subtle. Not subtle at all. This was painfully on the nose. “Go and find a man they call Strider” accompanied by the Lord of the Rings trilogy musical motif. “You must find out his real name yourself” or something equally rubbish. There were a million ways to perform this scene and the final choice of delivery was regretful. This felt more like George Lucas shoehorning in pre-reqs into his prequel trilogy to map to the original trilogies inconsistencies than the normally masterful Jackson. And yes, there are times when the appendices, the original story, and the new additions just don’t amount to enough substance to warrant inclusion in this movie. Just because it’s set in Middle Earth, it doesn’t have to clock in over 120 minutes. And already, this is the leanest of all 6 movies, but could have probably done with some harsher editing in certain areas, not least the removal of the bad bits I’ve mentioned.
Recommended? Don’t get me started on whether this one little book had to be split into three movies or not, I’m just happy to see a bit of artistic licence delivered onto the big screen. Jackson had the balls to deliver above and beyond what was written on the page or what was within the immediate reach of the fans clamouring for the source novel and for that he should be applauded. The very idea of venturing into Tolkien’s appendices to create more drama, action and depth to what is undoubtedly a pretty light children’s novel is a good idea, and one which he really did do well to create an epic 6 movie story arc.
Whilst it’s not all gold dust as per his original trilogy, I wouldn’t change vast chunks of the first or second movies, so for that matter, the third did what it had to do. It entertained. The fights were fun, the acting was good, it gave us more Gandalf, more Elrond, more Smaug, more Galdriel and Legolas. It concluded Bilbo’s greatest adventure, and in the final wonderful scenes with Martin Freeman in Bag End and the expert inclusion of Ian Holm, it set us up for one of, if not the, greatest trilogies of all time.
Note: here’s hoping the extended edition adds in some songs. Just kidding! But really, the extended edition could do with adding in some more depth and giving us a bit more time with the major players in Middle-Earth towards the latter stages of the movie. Whilst we don’t have to endure multiple fade-outs as per the original trilogies closing, it would be good to spend a bit more time wrapping up Gandalf, the remaining dwarves and Bilbo’s adventures. Hell, you could even throw a few lines of dialogue to that poor bastard that played Bombur.