Lavender Took (lavendertook) wrote,
Lavender Took

Bad Housekeeping in Middle-earth: A Review of the Desolation of Smaug

I enjoyed PJ's big AU Hobbity Adventure Part 2. It needed more dialog and character interaction and development and less orc fighting, wizard wall-pressing, and smart dragons being bad at hide 'n' seek, but yay for pretty, pretty Middle-earth. Some of the changes were good, doing a better job of pulling the narrative into Tolkien's Legendarium than Tolkien did himself, some intensify the antisemitic link with Dwarves, which is very disappointing to say the least, and some were a bit silly, but it was overall a fun romp.



It was nice to see them work the Appendix's meeting between Thorin and Gandalf into the film. I liked seeing more women there, including Katy Jackson waiting tables. And cats.


Totally, absolutely wrong. This Beorn is in no way a bear-man--he was way too lean, and looked much too wolfy. So I'd buy him as a wolf man, not a bear man. I mean, we all know bear men, and this one so did not look like one. But I have to say, I liked this AU Beorn far better than Tolkien's more arrogant Beorn. He was melancholy, other worldly, and with the mouse in hand, he came off as a gentle champion of nature's underdogs. He and Radagast would make the cutest naturalist couple. In every episode, Beorn would make a daring rescue of some imperiled woodland creature, bringing it home close to death for Radagast to heal and set free, and then Radagast would do something goofy and funny. Yeah, they're both terrible house keepers, so there would be no Odd Couple thing going between them, still Radagast would say or do something humorous to melt Beorn's aloof butchiness into sunshine smiles before they go off to make love like Rhosgobel rabbits together. End episode.

I really did imagine Tolkien's Beorn to be a better house keeper and gardner and longed to see his lovely gardens, which the film didn't deliver, but it was still a cool house--a lot like Radagast's--see, another connection! I did NOT miss the dancing dogs and livestock. Baaaaay-orn. Off with Hasselhoff of Bayorn Watch.


Cool dark forest. It was nice to see Galadriel phoning her BFF Gandalf again to explain Gandalf's bad-timed canon ditching of the party, and always good to see her. I'm OK with the claustrophobic psychosis thing of the forest because I am so glad they dispensed with Tolkien's Bombur-falls-into-the river-of-sleep device--it was one long fat joke and good on them for thinking better than doing it. The butterflies scene was just beautiful in 2-D, but in 48 fps it was way too obvious that all those oak leaves were bought at the Dollar Tree in October when the autumn decorations are out--WETA really fell down on that one--I was so disappointed.

The Mirkwood spiders were much more scary and realistic than Shelob. Still, PJ and WETA don't quite catch what is so terrifying about spiders for the arachnophobic--it's the way they instantly teleport and can turn up anywhere multidimensionally around you, and they could be a league away but still 2 legs are tangling around you--the way one spider can be 10 clinging adversaries at once, and the sense of contamination. The characters interacting with them need to display more horror in confronting them, the better to display their bravery in fighting them. Yeah, I got it bad. Maybe he's saving it for Ungoliant when they do The Silmarillion.

I'm glad Bilbo got a Sting naming moment in there, and the added ring moment worked well, as did making the spider voices be heard by him in the wraith world. And I like that the innateness of Bilbo's action hero courage is being complicated as ring-enhanced-- as excessively violent. It's an interesting idea undermining action hero status. MF's performance throughout is spot-on--he makes up for lack of dialog like no one else.


I'm glad to see Gandalf involved in the Necromancer/Sauron linking that sets things up for LotR--am glad to have TH used as a prequel that makes it fit better into the Legendarium. It works well for setting up the Nazgul without getting into involved canon history. That said, the shorter these bits the better--not much went on, the fighting was rote, and they weren't visually compelling. But I was glad to see Radaghast getting to work more with Gandalf and being more integral to the story in a serious way. I still could do without the dried stream of bird doo.


I like Tauriel and I'm glad she's there. She's more than the romance plot she's been placed in since she brings philosophical opposition of a WW2 variety to her isolationist liege lord, and that's good. It leaves me curious as to her background, which is good fanfic fodder. It would have been better if we were given 2 women elves interacting to pass the Bechdel Test, but I know that's more than one can hope for. Frankly though, with all the attention this subplot accorded to the Elves, I would have liked more personalized attention to have been given to the dwarves, and it wouldn't have hurt to make one or 2 of those 13 dwarves female and to have given them focus--it might have mitigated more serious issues I'll get to when I talk about dwarves further on.

I enjoyed the disappearing feasts scene of the text and missed seeing it in the film, but it really doesn't fit in with Tolkien's larger canon any better than falala-ing Rivendell Elves does, and it was good of them to rescue Tolkien from his own conflicted desire to saddle himself with his hated Midsummer Night's Dream type Elves while talking down to children in just the way he came to deplore. Good job saving the Professor from himself there! Thranduil's realm was beautifully done--dark the way Lothlorien shouldn't have been. The architecture was gorgeous and I loved the tiered cells. Thranduil is cool, I loved Bilbo's confusion on how to get himself out once he's sent the dwarves down the shoot, and I did not find the extended barrel escape over-long, maybe because the scenery was pretty and gave me lots to look at besides the orcs. Unlike in the Goblin's realm hijinx, the hijinx here served better for character moments--defining Bombur as an irrepressible fighter, Kili's bravery, which was setting up the hurt/comfort plot, and some suspense over the conflict for Legolas and Tauriel over rescuing and capturing their prisoners as they interacted with them.


The Laketown set was beautiful--dirty and richly angled. I loved Bard's cozy home and the Master's woodwork and library were to die for. Having Bard be the one to take in the dwarves and then slowly figure out why they were there, and turn on them after he was the one who snuck them in makes him look a little ditzy, but OK. Better a bit ditzy and more developed than Grim!Bard of canon. Mary Nesbitt was feisty and adorable as Bard's youngest. And I was so glad to see so many varied people of color featured among the people of Laketown, though speaking parts would have been nicer, but, of course, you have to be an orc for that.

How the prophecy was depicted as spreading was well done--I liked the quiet gathering crowd-talk and Bard getting history through folk textile culture, i.e., quilts. Breaking the dwarves into 2 groups so you can split focus between them makes sense, depending on how they play it out in the last film As many have noted, the orcs sneaking into a guarded town unopposed was pretty stupid, though. And I endured the gross-out bits of dwarves in the toilet and being covered in fish; however, I did enjoy how Dwalin played his uber-annoyance to it all. The hurt/comfort scene was nice, but kind of rote--a Morgul!arrow now? and more athelas because Ringbearers set trends for hurt/comfort scenarios before they experience them. And why was Kili's head resting on a bowl of whole walnuts? Sympathetic nutball magic?


Tolkien stated he made some deliberate parallels between Jews and dwarves, had some nice things to say about Jews and against antisemitism, and made an attempt to reclaim his dwarves as heroic and make the connection between dwarves and Jews a good one, but he failed miserably. The connection is antisemitic, because overall, while Elves are superhuman, dwarves, as Aule's flawed creation and not Eru's, as are Elves, Humans, and Hobbits, remain somewhat subhuman. Thanks for us not being considered as pretty as your tall svelte Nordic Elves, and, thank PJ for adding Gimli's use of dwarvish women as the butt of a joke to make Eowyn laugh in TTT, in a nice display of misogyny and species/ethnic self-loathing. We Jewish women always get dumped on double. I would have liked their playing with an alternate aesthetic of women with beards, but after Gimli's joke to Eowyn, it's not very reclaimable in film canon without directly positing that dwarf men who dislike beards on women are misogynist, and I don't think the script is going to go there in film 3.

But most of all, no thanks to Tolkien for depicting Jews as greedier by nature than all other peoples, as is always the centerpiece of antisemitism. Throughout Tolkien's Legendarium, Dwarves are connected with greed, and you can't connect them with Jews and make that connection be anything but antisemitic. Yes, Elves like Thranduil, who Tolkien connected with his predecessor Thingol, are depicted as greedy, but the Elves get to have so many strong faults and virtues to round them out, and it is made clear that greed is not a fault of all Elves. Dwarves are not developed enough in the Legendarium to take them past this specific characterization, and a lot of rounding would have to be done to break the antisemitic portrait once Tolkien made the Jewish connection. I know Tolkien intended better, but intentions don't always mitigate the damage done.

So PJ had a choice on whether or not to play up the connection between Jews and dwarves. Although it makes their quest more sympathetic than in the text, the lost homeland theme that PJ plays up more than Tolkien, and the first film's prologue scene of diaspora dwarves wandering the barrens does add to the Jewish connection. And to add to that cinematic iconography, Thorin is dressed in a nice Middle-eastern cross-over wool robe as he climbs the mountain, so you have your subliminal Ten Commandments reminder. To set things up from the start of this film, Beorn, speaking in the voice of authority of underdog justice, as he gently handles the mouse, characterizes dwarves as greedy. Yes, I know fans of the dwarves have fanon that reclaims dwarves as heroic and just as good as anyone else, but PJ, as well as Tolkien, did not achieve that. It is true that many viewers unfamiliar with Tolkien's remarks on dwarves and Jews may not pick up on the connections at all in the film, but I do think PJ is playing with the Jewish connection with dwarves through these images. The connection is antisemitic and it makes me unhappy. I wish it wasn't there.

The greed message could have been undermined by the depiction of an active insurrection among the dwarves against Thror in the flashbacks, which would have been a nice chance to develop a female dwarf character to oppose Thror's gold sickness, or more attention to dwarf interaction in this film with a dwarf character like Tauriel posing opposition stronger than Balin's discarded grumbles. PJ may still try to make the dwarves in Laketown function as that insurrection in the third film, but Beorn's statement as a judgment Gandalf did not voice any opposition to still stands. They are going to have to tackle it directly if they want to convey the message that no people should be characterized as being more greedy than any other peoples. I'm not holding my breath that they will manage this in part 3.


Getting into the mountain was easier in the film than the book. We really don't get a sense of the full horror of the desolation and mini-Mordorness that Smaug created all around the mountain, being the baddest house keeper of them all. We don't get the hardships and fear of getting spotted that are in the book--a suspense opportunity lost. But the dell and lark and Durin's Door were perfect, even if the whole moon runes thing is kind of stupid; it's all about setting up parallels for getting into Moria. PJ loves his repeated motifs. Wev. *shrugs* I also found the lack of horror and mourning expressed by the dwarves when they encounter the piles of mummified corpses by the blocked entrance to be disturbing--this is their people with their children among them! What happened tot he emotional life of these dwarves? And I really hope PJ was not going for Holocaust imagery there, because that would make it so much worse . . . I really, really hope not.


The Smaug and Bilbo interaction was perfect, as was expected given the actors involved. Smaug's glowing belly telegraphing when he was going to blow was both ominously suspenseful and such a very effective image--nicely done. I like my dragons longer of snout, but I guess that wouldn't have synched as well with mapping BC's expressions onto Smaug's face. For my first viewing, I found the whole setting up the forges routine way too improbable and Rube Goldbergish in its outlandishness. But then my second time through, I remembered that this is a crack team of dish-chucking perfectly group-synched June Taylor choreographed dwarves, and they were a large enough group, that perhaps I could buy that they could get the kingdom forges going all on their own. It would have helped if they had mentioned they had studied the old layouts and had a plan for distracting the dragon beforehand--still Rube Goldbergish, and laws of physics defying, even factoring in a magical heat to dragon flames, which if it was that magically hot should have fried the company with just columns for shelter, but OK, I could buy their competence. My main remaining problem is how all the hide-n-seek going on for ages made it look like it was pretty easy to evade Smaug--it made him look incompetent, not very sensorily sharp, and dim-witted, which is totally wrong for any Tolkien dragon, let alone Smaug. And it undermines what a feat it is for Bilbo to converse with Smaug and come back alive. And while I'm on that, I just don't get why Bilbo took off the ring in Smaug's presence. It makes no sense. But the gilding of Smaug was very beautiful, so yay for pretty pictures! Visual spectacle--we gots that here.

This was no feel good ending, but it was right that it shouldn't be. That closing song was very ominous and haunting, setting us up for what is to come. I hope we get every bit of Bilbo's diplomatic achievement in part 3 and get to see Galadriel storming Dol Guldor--maybe even she and Tauriel will meet to make part 3 pass the Bechdel Test--a grrl can dream.

So it's no FotR, and lacks the heart the first Hobbit installment had, but it's a fun romp I'm glad I saw twice in the theater, and I look forward to the third film next year.

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Tags: dos, films, lotr, the hobbit, tolkien
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