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desolation of smaug poster

“If this is to end in fire, then we will all burn together.”

Can you believe it’s been nearly four years since I reviewed the first Hobbit movie? *Sigh*, how time flies. My tastes may have matured and expanded, and I like to think my writing has improved too, but my thoughts on The Hobbit trilogy haven’t changed. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is superior, obviously, but I’m quite fond of this slightly smaller yet no less exciting adventure. I went into great detail why in the previous review, but if I had to sum it up I like how it expands upon Middle Earth lore hinted at in Lord of the Rings while decently tying it back to the events of those movies, and it fixes some major character and plot issues I had that kept me from fully enjoying the book it was based on.

While The Hobbit films do suffer from some the same issues as another prequel trilogy that people love to harp on – mainly an over-reliance on CGI and some contrived plotting – I’m relieved to say that poor performances and production value are not among them. The fact that they were able to bring together some great newcomers to the franchise as well as get as many cast members and locations from Lord of the Rings to return and make it all not feel like fanservice is a testament to the writing, craftmanship and direction that went into making these films, even more so since they were under double the studio pressure than they were the first time around. And if I may be shallow for a moment, it also looks really nice. Sometimes I like nothing more than to get lost in an inviting woodland fantasy atmosphere and this scratches my itch every time.

Now we have the much-anticipated Part 2, The Desolation of Smaug. This incarnation of The Hobbit was originally supposed to end here. But at the last minute it was decided that the Battle of the Five Armies, which happens during the last fifty pages of the book, was too important to relegate to the last act of a film that could potentially overreach The Return of the King’s runtime so they made it its own separate movie. I should mention that the copy of Desolation of Smaug I’m reviewing is the theatrical version since I received it as a gift. I saw the extended edition when it came out on blu-ray and the comparison between the two is an…interesting one. The extended cut fixes some of the inconsistent pacing and adds a few welcome character moments both original and from the book, but the rest I could do without. Some scenes stop the movie, sidetrack the main plot for something else to happen and take you out of the moment as a result, or simply add way more than necessary. One of these days I might get around to editing my own cut combining the best of the two, but for now I’d say you’re better off sticking with the theatrical cut in this case. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about, I’ll give special mention to those parts when they’re supposed to come up. So let’s find out if it was it a wise decision to split these movies up or if those naysayers who edited the entire trilogy into one forty-five minute feature were right.

Previously on The Hobbit: Once upon a time in the land of Middle Earth there was a powerful dwarf kingdom called Erebor. But the king’s greed invited the wrath of a dragon called Smaug who decimated the population and claimed the kingdom and its riches for his own. Years later, the king’s grandson Thorin Oakenshield gathered up a company of loyal dwarfs, a wizard named Gandalf the Grey, and a humble Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins to take back Erebor. While on their revenge trip, Bilbo came across a ring of some unusual significance, Thorin and the group were stalked by a horde of revenge-seeking orcs, and Gandalf and his nature buddy Radagast The Brown discovered that an ancient threat may be attempting a comeback…

Continuing the Peter Jackson tradition of opening Tolkien movies with extended flashbacks, we open in the town of Bree shortly before Thorin and Bilbo’s quest begins.

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Speaking of Peter Jackson traditions…

Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) pays a visit to the local inn The Prancing Pony, unaware that some mean-looking thugs are following him. Thankfully Gandalf (Ian McKellen) steps in and wards them off. He introduces himself, tells Thorin he knows who he is and warns him that there’s a bounty on his head. This doesn’t matter much to Thorin since he’s convinced the one who put the bounty out is long dead (spoiler alert: he ain’t).

Thorin’s more interested in finding his father Thrain, who went mad with grief after seeing his father (Thorin’s grandfather King Thror) beheaded on the battlefield and disappeared to parts unknown. Gandalf’s all “Hey, I knew that guy!” and uses that as a jumping point to pitch his latest get-rich-quick-or-die-trying scheme: reclaim and reestablish Erebor and have Thorin take his place as its rightful king. There’s just two problems: one, Smaug the dragon is still claiming residency there, and two, the only thing that can unite all the dwarfs under Thorin’s banner is the Arkenstone, which Smaug is currently sitting on top of. But Gandalf says he knows a guy…

The movie officially continues where we left off previously with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) keeping an eye out for Azog the Defiler and his mooks who are pursuing them as they trek through a mountain pass. Gandalf suggests a place they can go where they’ll be safe from Azog, but their host will either welcome them or kill them.

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“If it’s Ted Nugent or Walder Frey, I’d say you’re safer with the orcs.”

The company makes a run for it with the orcs on their heels. The orcs are scared off by a giant bear, which also pursues the dwarfs. It’s enough to get even Bombur, the dwarf that appears the least physically fit, to sprint like a shopper on Black Friday. Bombur’s characterization up to this point was simply “the fat one”, but it was at this moment combined with a later scene that made me realize he’s the live-action equivalent of Obelix from the Asterix comics.

Azog regroups in the woods with his son/general Bolg (Lawrence Makoare) who shares his father’s pigmentation, extreme scarring, penchant for violence, and motion-capture work. Like Azog before him, Bolg was supposed to be made up in practical prosthetics, but this time it was a change in casting that caused him to be redone with mo-cap. It’s still decent CGI like his daddy’s so I don’t mind it, even when it doesn’t quite hold up to actual makeup orcs in the same scenes as him. Bolg tells Azog their boss wants a word with him in Dol Guldur, so Azog gives him the o.k. to complete his vendetta against Thorin. I’m guessing after the last time Azog had Thorin in his grasp he figured he should only give the job of killing him to people he could trust to do it without giving anyone else time to dramatically intervene.

Thorin’s team makes it to the home of their gracious host Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) and they bolt the door against the monstrous bear. But Gandalf informs them that Beorn IS the bear; a skinchanger who can take the form of one, to be precise. Rather than being fierce and jolly like his book counterpart, movie Beorn is rather morose in human form due to a tragic backstory. His race got caught in the war between orcs and dwarfs, the former of which tortured and destroyed his family, making him the last of his kind. So Beorn isn’t the biggest fan of dwarfs, but luckily his hatred of orcs outweighs his prejudice. He lends them some supplies and and a ride for the journey on the condition that the dwarfs send the ponies back once they reach a certain forest, Mirkwood. It used to be lush and safe for travelers, but has grown sick, corrupted, and deadly, just like Alabama.

When Gandalf reaches the edge of the woods, he finds some Mordor-themed graffiti on a marker and receives a flashback/ForceTime call from Galadriel updating him on the Necromancer situation carrying over from the previous film. He decides that takes precedence over the quest and announces he has to run off for a bit to deal with it. I understand the complaints that this Necromancer subplot comes off like needless padding, though I believe it fixes a huge plot hole in the book where Gandalf would disappear at random intervals, mostly whenever Bilbo and the gang could really use him, without ever explaining why. Bilbo almost tells Gandalf about the Ring he found in the goblin tunnels before he leaves, but the Ring’s encroaching influence makes him backtrack at the last second.

Gandalf warns the company to stay on the road through Mirkwood no matter what, though if you’ve seen any horror movie you’ll know that’s exactly what they end up not doing. They quickly get lost and the forest’s dark magic causes them to trip out like Radagast indulging in one mushroom too many. And it’s here I have to give it to the theatrical version over the director’s cut which shoehorns things from the book that really draws this part out. There’s more arguing, Bombur falls into a river cursed with a sleeping spell and the company has to drag his narcoleptic ass around, and an unusual pointless scene where Thorin attempts to shoot an albino deer that may or may not be magical. I’m well aware that this is Tolkien’s nod to the creature’s role in folklore such as King Arthur or India’s The Son of Seven Queens, but considering that Warner Brothers is also behind another popular high-grossing fantasy film series based on a children’s book that features a fantastical glowing white stag, I can’t help but feel this moment comes off as a tad synergistic.

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Prongs, you’re in the wrong franchise! Get out of here before the Potterheads riot!

Even Bilbo finally gets tired of not knowing wtf is going on and he climbs up a tree to get some fresh air. I’ve stated before that I’m not a fan of the animated Hobbit by Rankin-Bass, but I like how they pay homage to it with this shot of him emerging from the flame-colored autumn leaves amid a cloud of sapphire butterflies.

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Pictured: Bilbo painting with all the colors of the wind.

Bilbo sees they’re not too far from the Lonely Mountain but nobody responds to his shouts. He checks back below to find his compatriots have been scooped up by something fierce. Remember those giant spiders we caught a glimpse of back in An Unexpected Journey? Well now we get to see them in full, and they’re not pretty.

The spiders capture Bilbo and cocoon him with his companions. Once Bilbo slips on the ring he can understand what the spawn of Shelob are saying since they speak in the Black Speech of Mordor. It’s a nice change from the book where the spiders talk for no reason because it’s a fantasy story. Just having talking spiders suddenly appear in a world that takes itself so seriously would have been off-putting. It also establishes that these spiders are part of the evil forces behind corrupting Middle Earth, namely Sauron’s clique. Bilbo distracts the spiders and kills a bunch of them with his sword while he’s still invisible. The rest flee from the “stings”, which Bilbo decides is a pretty good name for his trusty spider-stabber.

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“I planned on naming it after my favorite member of The Police anyway, so it works out!”

Bilbo works at freeing his friends until he loses the ring. It lands at the feet of a grubby giant baby spider. Bilbo takes it as a threat and ravages it with a “Mine!” that sounds eerily similar to Gollum. But he’s immediately filled with remorse at killing a relatively innocent creature and realizes that it was the ring that drove him to such hateful actions. Though Bilbo can’t quite bring himself to part with it, he recognizes the danger the Ring possesses and puts it away for now.

As for the dwarfs, they tangle with the rest of the spiders until they receive some unexpected help – elves from the Mirkwood led by Lord of the Rings fan favorite Legolas, portrayed again by Orlando Bloom. Chalk him up among the other returning actors who’ve magically Benjamin Buttoned in the decade since they played these roles. And it goes without saying that Bloom slips back into the part as easily as if he put a coat on. Welcome back, man.

Among Legolas’ hunting party is a newcomer to the Middle-Earth mythos, an original character made up by Peter Jackson, Tauriel, a female warrior elf. The main reason why this movie won out over the others this month is because people really wanted to know my thoughts regarding her and I’m not going to beat around the bush:

I think Tauriel is awesome.

She’s the lone female fighter in Mirkwood or any elf army we’ve seen, her skills in combat have made her a captain of the guard, she’s not afraid to stand up to authority if she believes her morals and the safety of others are being compromised even at the risk of capital punishment, and while initially mistrustful of the dwarfs, Kili in particular, and they both dare to break their culture’s respective taboos by helping and falling in love with each other. She’s likable, nuanced, and worthy of being a part of this story.

I know a good many of you are leaping to the comments section crying “She’s only in it because they want more girls in the movie!” or “It’s their way of manipulating women into watching this!” to which I say “What the hell is wrong with that?” Middle-Earth, like many fantasy worlds or literature in general, is starved for great female representation. Just for comparison, C.S. Lewis put the exact number of named female characters in each of his 7 Narnia books as Tolkien did for his entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. And even when Tolkien had one of his female characters like Eowyn do something cool like kill the Witch King, he quickly had her fall back into a traditional stereotype by deciding the life of a shield maiden wasn’t for her and taking up gardening or whatever the hell women did in his era besides giving birth. In this age, we’re more comfortable with the idea of women breaking out of prescribed gender roles. Small spoiler for Battle of the Five Armies, but at my screening when it got to the moment where the women of Dale declare they’re not gonna sit around while their husbands and sons fight for them and they join the battle, the entire audience burst into cheers.

The point I’m trying to make is people want to see more women taking names and kicking ass in the media we consume, even if we have to make them up and place them in already established lore, because lord knows we need something to inspire the next generation that we don’t need men’s approval to do show our wills are as strong as theirs and our kingdoms as great (if not stronger and greater). True, I am a bit miffed that Warner Bros. made Tauriel part of a love triangle through reshoots (the fact that she originally wasn’t created to be part of a romance subplot was the reason why Evangeline Lily took the role in the first place); but it doesn’t subtract from her general badassitude. If anything, her empathy and personal connection with Kili gives her more of a reason to fight for human and dwarf-kind. Hell, I almost wish they took it a step further and worked in Thorin’s sister Dís somehow since she’s royalty, a badass mother of two and mentioned in The Hobbit’s family tree, which makes her a canon character that the Tolkien fan base gatekeepers will have to accept!

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“What? Just because I don’t care for the books doesn’t mean I don’t do the research. Or indulge in a few well-written AU fanfics on the side.”

And for anyone reading this who dares to throw down the “Mary Sue” card just like the foaming fanboys did with Rey or Arya Stark, I’d like to point out that Tauriel has to give it all she’s got in every single fight and constantly butts heads with Thranduil over conflicting moralities, while Legolas is almost as invulnerable as he is in Lord of the Rings and never misses a single damn shot.

Point, TAURIEL.

Legolas and his gang disarm the dwarfs and frisk them. He comes into conflict with Gloin over a locket containing portraits of his wife and his infant son Gimli, whom Legolas calls a mutated goblin.

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Sixty years later…

Leggy recognizes Thorin’s blade as elf-made and accuses him of being a thief, so he hauls the company to Mirkwood’s elf kingdom and his father, the aloof and absolutely fabulous King Thranduil (Lee Pace). Thranduil concerns himself only with the welfare of his own kind and has done everything to shut out all outsiders and refugees short of building a huge wall around Mirkwood and making the spiders pay for it. Instead of the annoying circular argument between Thorin and Thranduil we get in the book, Thranduil says he already knows about Thorin’s quest and offers his help in exchange for one thing from Erebor’s treasury – a chest of diamonds that gleam like stars, the very same shown in the extended prologue of An Unexpected Journey. Thorin denies him on principle since Thranduil refused to lift a finger for his people on the day Smaug burninated the countryside. Thranduil retorts that Thorin’s grandfather didn’t do anything to help his kingdom when the forest sickness crept in and Thorin shouldn’t mess with fire if doesn’t want to get scorched. To prove his point, he momentarily lifts his glamour to reveal a nasty burn on the side of his face.

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“Yikes! You got THAT from a dragon?!” “Actually it’s from a bunch of space losers holding hands with a glowing purple rock, but the point remains: magic fire is the worst.”

Thranduil has the dwarfs locked up in the dungeons, but Thorin knows they’ve still got an ace in the hole – Bilbo, who’s currently sneaking into the palace unseen thanks to the Ring. At one point he thinks Thranduil has caught him, but it turns out he’s talking to Tauriel. The two elves clash over Thranduil’s isolationist policies; Tauriel wants to take the fight to Dol Guldur since the spiders keep returning no matter how often she destroys the nests, but Thranduil would rather let the outside world take care of itself than risk his kingdom falling.

Conversation turns to Legolas and his growing admiration for Tauriel. Thranduil grills her the way a father would a prospective in-law gauging if Tauriel feels the same way about his son. Now I didn’t know this going in but apparently the elves of Middle Earth have their own classes and races; Thranduil and Legolas are part of the ruling class Sindarin, which carries some disturbing implications since nearly all Sindarin elves are portrayed as physically flawless white blondes. Tauriel on the other hand is a Silvan elf, which puts her among among the working class and much maligned gingers. At Tauriel’s prompting Thranduil admits he normally wouldn’t let Legolas hook up with a common Silvan elf, but hey, crazier things have happened in Middle Earth. Tauriel’s reaction I find utterly fascinating thanks to Evangeline Lily’s acting. Is she happy? Hopeful? Concerned? Is her modesty genuine or is she worried about appearing too confident in front of her boss and possible boyfriend’s father? Or is she afraid of any consequences if she doesn’t reciprocate Leggy’s affections? There’s so much you could read into here.

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Tauriel checks in on the prisoners and finds Kili contemplating a gift from his mother, a stone with some Dwarvish carved into it. He tells her it symbolizes his promise to return to her when their quest is done.

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“Did I also mention that by the time we get to Erebor I’ll have two days before retirement? I also picked up this nifty vintage jacket with a giant target over my heart, it’s gonna look so cool in battle!”

As Legolas watches jealously overhead, Kili and Tauriel tear down their walls and get to know each other better, becoming something more than captive and captor. Tauriel shares that Mirkwood is currently celebrating the Feast of Starlight, something of a holy day for elves as starlight holds wondrous significance for them (hence why Thranduil really wants those starry diamonds). It is memory and purity, like his promise. Kili in turns regales her with a story about glimpsing shooting stars while escorting a caravan of merchants. It may not be much to get their romance off the ground, but it’s a start. It’s mainly helped by the music; their love theme ranks among my favorites in the trilogy’s score.

I swear Howard Shore is to Middle Earth is what John Williams is to a galaxy far far away. No matter what the scenario he can make it sound straight from the heavens.

Bilbo waits for the guards to get nice and drunk before lifting the keys and freeing the dwarfs. He stashes them in some empty wine barrels and dumps them into the river coursing out of Mirkwood. He stops short when he realizes he’s left no way for himself to escape. Martin Freeman’s physical comedy here is on point, conveying the simple thought “Huh, really didn’t think this one through.” Fortunately he stumbles over the trap door in just the right way that he falls through and rejoins the company. The barrels sail outside until they crash into a dam where more guards are keeping watch.

Good news: Something stops the elves from detaining the prisoners they don’t want in their kingdom to begin with.

Bad news: That something is Bolg.

The orcs attack both elves and dwarfs with their trademark fierceness. Kili dares to leap into the heat of the battle in order to open the floodgates for their escape. But Bolg takes the opportunity to shoot a poisoned arrow in Kili’s leg. Tauriel protects him from further harm as Kili pries open the dam and joins the others as they careen down the rapids.

This barrel riding sequence is one of two reasons why this movie was a perfect Imax experience. Barely any computer graphics were used to simulate the wet and wild ride; they really did send the actors down a giant waterslide and filmed the entire thing from their point of view. It made you feel like you were along for the ride too. The orcs attacking overhead make it even more tense. If they ever get around to building a Middle Earth Land in the Universal or Disney parks (the latter being the most possible but ironic pick considering Tolkien’s loathing of Disney), this would be an amazing water ride.

I’ve stated in my last Hobbit review that something I love about the movies is that they give each dwarf at least one time to shine. Bombur gets his here as his barrel is sent flying through the air, bounces through a barrage of orcs, and once he lands on his own two feet he goes on a spinning killing spree, like the most badass little short and stout teapot.

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“Try to tip me over now, muthafuckas!”

The dwarfs get away with Bolg’s squadron right behind but Legolas stops Tauriel from pursuing them since they managed to capture one of the orcs. They bring him back to Thranduil for interrogation. The orc goads them by revealing Kili will be dead within a day due to the poison, which really riles up Tauriel. He only gives some cryptic words about how his master is coming and the world will burn before Thranduil beheads him much to Legolas’ surprise.

Legolas: Why did you do that? You promised to set him free.

Thruanduil: And I did. I freed his wretched head from his miserable shoulders.

Thranduil correctly guesses that their enemies intend to use Smaug as their weapon once Thorin awakes him. To that effect he officially closes the borders of his kingdom so no one comes in or out without his notice. Legolas passes it on to his guards but they notify him Tauriel has already run off. She intends to catch up with the dwarfs and lure Legolas out to join her so they can protect them together. When he reaches her, she reminds him that isolating themselves will only allow the evil in the world to fester, and they can’t afford to do that anymore.

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“All right, I’ll come…freaking s.j.e.w*.”

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“That’s S.P.E.W., you poor uncultured swine! How am I supposed to free your kind from wizard slavery if you can’t get the name right?”

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“What was that about “freeing” us, young witch?”

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“Um, nothing. Nothing at all. I’ll never mention it again, I promise. Not even to my friends at school.”

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“See that you don’t.”

Meanwhile, Gandalf has gone with Radagast the Brown to inspect the tombs of the nine kings loyal to Sauron, the greatest enemy of Middle Earth. They find something has broken out – not in, out. Radagast and Gandalf come to the terrible conclusion that Sauron and the Necromancer could very well be one and the same. He’s grown stronger in the years since his defeat and has now called forth his former servants the Ringwraiths, aka the Nazgul, aka those cloaked guys with no faces, to serve him again alongside a growing army of orcs. Their first stop? Erebor. Establishing such a powerful stronghold in the East and possibly recruiting Smaug to their cause would not bode at all well for Middle Earth. Gandalf wants to warn the company of the danger they’re in, but Radagast reminds him the world is in even bigger danger if the Necromancer is left unchecked in Dol Guldur, which puts Gandalf between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Just so I won’t have to go back and forth with a thousand meanwhiles, I’m going to cover the rest of Gandalf’s subplot right now. The same goes for the rest of the side quests when they diverge from the main story. Gandalf ultimately goes to Dol Guldur alone and tells Radagast to inform Galadriel about their proceedings. He notices the concealment spells over the fortress are pretty weak, which means the Necromancer hasn’t reached his full power yet. Even Radagast can tell this is a trap, but Gandalf forges ahead regardless.

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“Crap, there was something about Radagast’s hair I forgot to tell him about, something to do with birds…eh, it’ll come to me sooner or later.”

He casts a few spells to draw out the darkness but, in the extended cut, finds someone there he did not expect. Remember Thorin mentioning looking for his father Thrain in the prologue? Gandalf finds him there as a half-mad prisoner of Azog. Thrain darts in and out of the shadowy ruins chasing the wizard like a monster in an effective scary movie scene.

Gandalf manages to pin Thrain down, restore his sanity, and prove the realistic illusions the dwarf believes are keeping him in are just that. In turn Thrain reveals Azog kidnapped him during the Battle of Moria and cut off his finger to take back one of the rings Sauron forged and gave to the dwarfs as a means of secretly controlling them. It wasn’t until I revisited the director’s cut of An Unexpected Journey that I noticed there’s a scene from there that alludes to this reveal. When Gandalf is in council with Sauruman, Galadriel and Elrond, they bring up the fate of the seven dwarf rings and how one has gone missing along with its bearer, Thrain. Sauruman waves it off since the rings can only pose a danger to their wearers while Sauron is in control of his One Ring, which he currently isn’t. All this time I had no idea this moment was building up to something that also wound up on the cutting room floor.

Azog has held Thrain captive in Dol Guldur to to pry the secrets of Erebor from him to no avail. Gandalf proudly tells Thrain that Thorin has taken up the quest to reclaim Erebor, but Thrain warns him that it’s all a setup. Smaug is already in league with the enemy and nothing but death waits his son. Thrain and Gandalf attempt to escape but the Necromancer blocks their only way out. Certain that this is the end, Thrain asks Gandalf to tell Thorin his father loves him. One of the Necromancer’s dark tendrils lashes out and whips Thrain out of Gandalf’s reach to his death. Despite his short amount of screentime, I’m sad to see him go. To have Thrain regain his senses and have some hope that he might see his family again only to lose his life moments later is nothing short of tragic.

Or it should be except Thrain’s dying scream is a Wilhelm scream.

A FUCKING Wilhelm scream.

In case you need a reminder, a Wilhelm scream is the sound that every stormtrooper makes when they bite the dust.

Yeah. THAT. And I know one of the unwritten rules of the Peter Jackson movies is to include a wilhelm scream in each film, but it’s all about the timing and situation. An unseen fighter in the midst of a huge battle? Fine. A character with a tragic past facing his doom with an emotional farewell? Fine if you want to strip the moment and everything that follows of its dignity; a gut punch transformed into a punchline. It was this right here that made me favor the theatrical cut hands down. Most of the other cut scenes I could sit through but never this one because of that single poor sound editing choice which ruins it. I’m tempted to buy the extended cut just so I could listen to the audio commentary and hopefully gain some insight as to what the hell they were thinking here.

Well after…that, the original and director’s cut sync up again as Gandalf gets in a magic duel with the Necromancer. No, it doesn’t involve them changing into color-coded animals to outsmart each other, just a bunch of light and dark magic zapped around until the Necromancer gets the upper hand and destroys Gandalf’s staff. Powerless and trapped, Gandalf is forced to look upon the Necromancer’s true form, and it is just as he feared – Sauron is back.

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Sauronception, WOOOAAH!

The dwarfs and Bilbo wash up far from Mirkwood but still have a ways to go before they reach the Lonely Mountain. As they patch up Kili’s wound, they meet a bargeman named Bard (Luke Evans). Bard was a character introduced in the last few pages of The Hobbit shortly before The Battle of the Five Armies and, without giving anything away, was a deus ex machina for the main conflict. He had little to no character and popped in to save the day without any buildup, robbing the reader of any satisfaction of seeing the main characters fulfill what they set out to do. The Desolation of Smaug rescues Bard from being Tolkien’s Wesley Crusher by not only giving him some characterization but an arc that carries over into the next movie, which makes his biggest victory and contribution to the plot feel earned. It’s why I’m glad the book was split up into three movies; it may spread the plot thin at parts but it allows for more character exploration than Tolkien’s writing ever did.

Bard greets the dwarfs with trepidation but is anxious about helping them cross the lake separating them from their destination. They’ll have to pass through Bard’s home of Laketown to pick up weapons and supplies, which is sure to rile up the tightfisted xenophobic master of the town known only as The Master. What a surprise, another leader who hates outsiders, refuses minorities their basic rights, and hoards as much as he can at the cost his peoples’ living quality. Maybe Tolkien was really trying to write the high fantasy take of It Couldn’t Happen Here.

The company manages to cough up enough money to get Bard to change his mind; he has a family he needs to feed in this version, and with the Master firmly in the one percent while the rest of Laketown wallows in poverty and corruption running rampant, good dough is hard to come by. Once again the dwarfs are forced to hide in barrels, though this time Bard fills the barrels with fish in order to sneak them past the Master’s weaselly aide Alfrid (Ryan Gage).

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“I’m looking for an easy meal tonight, mind if I shoot these?”

Can I just take a moment to say how much I love how Laketown looks? Sure it’s not a pleasant place (think Les Mis meets Waterworld) but that’s the point. It’s rich and detailed and so beautifully homely. Dozens of ramshackle wooden dwellings and towers leaning on stilts cram together barely supporting each other as the lake threatens to swallow it whole. There’s little light and no warmth to be found, especially in the early winter atmosphere; ice floats on the surface and the first snow drifts grace the rooftops. Howard Shore’s theme for Laketown, which sounds like a march but played on strings, also emphasizes that this is a place where poverty and hardship are the norm.

Bard’s son Bain meets them on the docks to warn them the house is being watched, so they take the longer, less conspicuous route home. But the Master’s spies are everywhere and keeping a close eye on them, including…Stephen Colbert?!

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Ascended Fanboys: 1, Tom Bombadil: 0. As it should be.

Bard and Bain have to sneak the dwarfs up through the toilet. This earns some confusion from Bard’s daughters (played Bofur aka James Nesbitt’s daughters), the youngest of which has the most confusing line of the movie where she asks if these toilet dwarfs will bring them luck. Take it from someone who lived in Florida for a time, kid, anything that comes out of your toilet whether or not you put it in there yourself is not good luck. The total opposite, in fact.

Thorin sees a giant crossbow atop the Master’s mansion which brings back memories of Smaug’s attack on Erebor and Dale. Balin goes into exposition mode and informs Bilbo that Girion, the King of Dale, tried to kill Smaug using said launcher and a handful of specially crafted black arrows and failed. Bard and Bain correct him on this fact; Girion didn’t miss the dragon, but knocked one of his armored scales from a small spot beneath its wing. One more perfect hit and Smaug would have been history. But the dwarfs don’t believe them, nor are they pleased with what little homemade weapons Bard can provide for them.

Bard realizes who his unwelcome guests really are and goes on a quick jaunt to the market to do some research. He finds an old tapestry detailing the line of Durin, Thorin’s family. He also overhears snatches of the townsfolk who’ve noticed the dwarfs running around discussing a certain prophecy about Durin’s descendants, because it’s not a fantasy story without a chosen one prophecy. Supposedly Thorin is destined to return to the Lonely Mountain and spread its wealth to Laketown again. But this is bad news to Bard since he can only think of the part of the prophecy that the optimists omit – one where things will go horribly wrong and the lake will burn under Smaug.

The spies relay their report to Alfrid, who in turn delivers it to the Master, played with smug, unctuous delight by Stephen Fry. Alfrid and the Master are already aware of Bard’s rapport with the common folk of Laketown and see him as a threat to their power… well it takes the Master some time for him to see it that way after Alfrid throws around words he knows will trigger the Master: lawsuits, re-elections, tax reports, collusion investigations, sufficient evidence, impeachment, take your pick. And this is the biggest problem I have with Alfrid and the Master in the movie. This isn’t easy for me to say, folks, but…this is something The Hobbit book did much better than the films.

“DID IT JUST GET CHILLY DOWN HERE?”

In the book, The Master is a cowardly and greedy but shrewd and threatening businessman. He should be coming to these conclusions on his own and planning accordingly. Instead, we have diet Grima Wormtongue spoon-feeding him everything and pulling the strings. I’m sure Ryan Gage is a nice guy who works really hard at at what he does (apparently he’s played Ted Bundy twice) and he’s doing the best with what he’s given, but he doesn’t have even a tenth of Brad Dourif’s creepy charisma to support the idea that he’s a convincing Iago-type character. He’s just a sniveling douche piggybacking on others’ power to make himself appear more important and siphons time away from more interesting characters and story developments. He’s no real threat, he’s just a bully and a prick that we spend far more time with than we want to and wasn’t even part of the original story to begin with. The Master should be the primary human antagonist who calls the shots, but Alfrid steals all his thunder. I know they’re building him up to be one of those assholes who meets some grand karmic punishment later on so the movie’s overall catharsis factor skyrockets, but…well, you’ll see where I’m getting at once I reach The Battle of the Five Armies.

Bard tries to stop the dwarfs from continuing their quest but they’ve already been busted for raiding the armory. They’re brought before the Master and the whole town. And good lord do I love how this scene is shot: the harsh contrast of the firelight and the shadows, the claustrophobia of the surrounding mob, the snow gently falling all around them, it’s all perfect.

Thorin turns the crowd in his favor by promising them riches they haven’t seen since Dale, though Bard objects that the risk of being roasted alive by a dragon doesn’t outweigh the reward. I know the term has been irrevocably bastardized since the man in charge used it to condone white supremacy, but both sides do make a fair point. It’s a great scene, though even after my complaints about the director’s cut there’s one part from there I wish they had kept. The Master and Alfrid ask for someone to vouch for Thorin. When it seems no one will, Bilbo steps forward and gives a moving speech that further cements their deeply growing bond. Thorin ignores Bard and appeals directly to the Master who gives Thorin his blessing. Eager at the prospect of bagging more gold for himself, the Master also slanders Bard by pointing out that Girion was his ancestor, meaning the blame for not killing Smaug rests squarely on his family’s shoulders. Laketown celebrates as Bard’s warnings fall on deaf ears.

After much partying, Thorin and crew finally set out on Durin’s Day, the day that the hidden door to the Lonely Mountain will be revealed. However Thorin insists Kili stays behind because he hasn’t gotten any better since –

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“He took an arrow to the knee.”

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Kili offers to stay with his brother and Oin (the deaf one who’s also the group’s healer) joins him at the last minute. Bofur also misses the boat, but that’s due to a hangover. No one will help the dwarfs as Kili’s sickness increases, not even the Master, so they have no choice but to return to a reluctant Bard. The one thing that can help Kili right now is a weed called kingsfoil (nice throwback to Fellowship of the Ring). Bofur runs out to find some and unwittingly leads Bolg to Bard’s. Luckily Legolas and Tauriel leap in and fight off the orcs. Kili even manages to get in a kill despite it aggravating the poison.

Legolas chases Bolg out and calls for Tauriel to come with him, but she sticks around to revive Kili. Her elfin healing magic gives her a heavenly aura similar to Arwen’s from Fellowship that emphasizes her otherworldly and romantic force for good.

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“The power of Eru compels you! The power of Eru compels you!”

As for Legolas, he’s embroiled in a one-on-one with Bolg and, in a rarity for him, receives a bit of a beatdown. This results in the funniest, most confused look in the entirety of the Jackson-Tolkien saga.

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“Is this the emotion humans know as ‘blood’?”

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“I’m…bleeding??”

True to form though, Legolas gets back up and chases Bolg out of the movie. Meanwhile the noises coming from the mountain are making Bard and the townsfolk even more anxious. He reveals to his family that he’s had the last black arrow hidden in plain sight and intends to finish the job once Smaug comes a-knockin’. But Bard is arrested by the Master’s ICE on “whatever charge (he) feels like” before he can make it to the crossbow overhead, leaving the arrow in his son’s hands.

And now, back to our A-plot, which has been going on concurrently. Bilbo and the rest of the dwarfs cross the lake and find the ruins of Dale and the decaying countryside, which Balin refers to as the Desolation of Smaug.

By sunset they’ve reached the peak where the door is set to appear. According to the map, the last light of Durin’s Day is supposed to show them where the keyhole is. Yet nothing happens and the dwarfs grow desperate. Not even their weapons can break open the door. The last of their hope dies with the sunlight. The dwarfs sadly give up and start heading back in disappointment.

But not Bilbo. He’s come too far and done too much to even think of turning around now. Using everything he’s learned from his time with the dwarfs he tries to figure out how to open the door himself.

That patience pays off.

A thrush knocks an old snail shell against the stone (good callback to the prophecy on the map) as the moon emerges and shines a light on the keyhole. The last light of Durin’s Day refers not to the sunset, but the moon and stars. Bilbo nearly loses the key in his haste to alert the dwarfs but Thorin saves it in the nick of time. He was the first to come back when Bilbo called and that look of pride he gives to his burglar is so palpable that if it doesn’t make your heart burst then the following surely will.

The dwarfs finally enter Erebor; some for the first time, some, like Balin and Thorin, for the first time in ages. They’re so overcome with emotion they can barely speak. It’s almost impossible to not get choked up as they are as old memories flood to the surface. Durin’s folk have come home at last.

But now it’s time for the real reason why they’re there, Operation: Raiders of the Lost Arkenstone. While Bilbo was supposed to just pilfer whatever he could get his hands on in the book, Thorin is intent on him retrieving the Arkenstone so he can officially reclaim his birthright as King Under The Mountain. Balin accompanies Bilbo part of the way to the treasury and shares some words of encouragement, even assuring him that he doesn’t have to go through with it since he’s done so much for the company already. Yet Bilbo repeats his promise that he would try for them, and that courage moves Balin deeply. Bofur’s still my favorite of the dwarfs, but Balin’s compassion makes him a very close second.

Balin leaves Bilbo with the most sound advice he can give at this point – if he finds Smaug asleep and not dead as everyone hopes, try really, really hard not to wake him. Bilbo cautiously sneaks around the treasure-laden halls of Erebor, which make Scrooge McDuck’s money bin look like a piggy bank by comparison. He has little luck finding the Arkenstone underneath the mountains of gold and jewels, but he does find Smaug – he’s been walking on top of him the whole time.

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Bilbo slips on the Ring as Smaug wakes up and we finally see the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities in all his glory.

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Truly the tales, songs and screencaps fall utterly short.

I know it’s impossible to capture the terror-inducing awe of Smaug in one jpeg, but imagine watching him dead center in a darkened Imax theater – a true six story-high Imax theater – that rumbles like an earthquake with every movement. THAT is the only way to view and appreciate this monstrosity. It’s the closest thing to being caught in an encounter with the dragon himself. Apparently one movie theater reported that his first roar blew out their speakers. There is immense power on display in the form (it took a week to render every individual scale) and in the acting. Oh yes, Benedict Cumberbatch fucking kills it as Smaug. It’s some of the best mo-cap from anything in recent years and his voice sends a shiver down my spine in a way few things can. When he brags about having scales like iron and wings like a hurricane, I believe it. But it’s not just his tremendous size and strength that makes Smaug so terrifying. He is no mindless beast; this dragon is ruthlessly cunning and manipulative. It’s no wonder they got Sherlock to play him, and have him interact with his Watson, no less. That intellect combined with his serpentine movements and enormous prowess make Smaug a true threat to be reckoned with. Regardless of The Desolation of Smaug’s flaws, it’s well worth it just to get to him. It’s one of those rare times I can recall such a massive buildup exceeding my expectations instead of being a disappointment.

Smaug searches for his intruder and despite Bilbo’s invisibility manages to corner him. In keeping with Smaug’s allegiance to Sauron (which is only hinted at here if you’ve stuck with the original version) he can sense Bilbo is carrying something “gold, but far more…precious“. And since that’s the Ring’s trigger word, it overwhelms Bilbo until he’s forced to rip it off and come face to face with the dragon. In the book, Bilbo kept the Ring on the whole time and spoke to Smaug while still invisible. Here, keeping Bilbo in Smaug’s sight makes him much more vulnerable and the scene twice as tense. Plus it’s much more interesting than having an entire twelve minutes of a dragon conversing with himself.

Much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the book and it is great, largely due to Martin and Cumberbatch’s delivery. Bilbo buys as much time as he can by laying on some extra thick flattery and wisely refuses to give Smaug his name, choosing instead to present titles based on his adventures like Riddle Maker and Barrel Rider. But in spite of Bilbo’s insistence to the contrary, Smaug susses out that he’s in league with the dwarfs thanks to him smelling their scent on him. Shame there wasn’t enough time for Bilbo to shower before entering into Erebor. But it’s more than that; Smaug has been toying with Bilbo the whole time. Just from his smell and a few minutes of conversation he’s already guessed his true purpose in the mountain. He tries to further screw around with Bilbo by telling him that Thorin would gladly throw him to the wolves for the Arkenstone, and I’d say he’s wrong but…

As Smaug boasts about himself some more, Bilbo glimpses a chink in Smaug’s scales exactly as Bard described, which gives him some hope that the dragon isn’t entirely invulnerable after all. The Arkenstone lands within Bilbo’s grasp thanks to Smaug throwing his weight around. Smaug confesses that he’s tempted to let Bilbo run free with it so he can watch it corrupt Thorin and drive him mad with greed like his grandfather before him. It confirms that the Arkenstone has corrupting powers similar to the One Ring and is a indeed dangerous artifact that’s better out of Thorin’s hands, though it isn’t expanded upon much further than that. Some have theorized that the Arkenstone is one of the Simarils from The Simarillion, but frankly I have no time to get that deep into lore so let’s move on.

Smaug is in favor of eating Bilbo instead, but the hobbit puts the Ring back on and makes a quick getaway dodging the enraged dragon’s fire. Meanwhile Smaug’s restless thunder carries outside the mountain to the company. Everyone fears for Bilbo’s safety, except Thorin. He insists they give him more time instead of letting them go help. Balin is quick to call Thorin out on this and openly voice his concern that the curse of greed lying on the treasure that took Thror is consuming Thorin. Thorin denies he is his grandfather while standing in the shadow of his grandfather’s statue in the exact same pose, which anyone who’s taken Film Studies 101 will know that that’s the movie’s way of saying “Yes you totally are, dude.”

Thorin’s character arc so far has been a fascinating one. He began as a stoic badass who was no stranger to adversity. He deeply cared for his kin as a good leader should and in time came to accept Bilbo as one of them. He was stern, but fair. But as the journey progresses we see the same tragic flaws that afflicted his ancestors come to the surface. Thorin begins prioritizing the gold, titles and respect that comes with them over his people. He condemns the company and himself to Mirkwood’s dungeons after insulting Thranduil, pushes them to keep going without seeing to Kili’s wounds, then leaves him behind without a second thought when it’s clear he’ll hold them up. Thorin goes from willing to put himself on the line for the sake of his men to not wanting to risk the quest for one of them, not even one who shares his blood. The irony and tragedy is that he’s turning into the very thing he wanted to avoid becoming.

This change in Thorin was even foreshadowed in the end of An Unexpected Journey. When the eagles carried him away, he left behind his oak branch shield, the symbol of his physical and moral fiber that earned him his nickname. Over the course of these two films, Thorin sheds his more honorable qualities as he gets closer to his ancestral home and takes on his ancestors’ sins. He views the things that made him a trusted leader in the first place as weaknesses, targets for mockery from those who would thumb their noses at him for not being a “true” king. And in the process he starts alienating those closest to him. Balin even has to remind him that the burglar who’s risking his neck for them has a name.

Speaking of, I haven’t talked much about Thorin and Bilbo’s relationship throughout the review because it’s not given the same amount of focus as the previous movie, at least until the last forty minutes. Some critics believed that Bilbo and Thorin both completed their character arcs once Bilbo leaped to his rescue (and launched the Bagginshield ship) in An Unexpected Journey, and thus rendered any further development pointless. I argue that while that moment is a major turning point in their progression, it’s not the end for them. Throughout The Desolation of Smaug, Thorin looks to Bilbo to see them through whenever the gang is in a fix they can’t get themselves out of. It took Bilbo saving his life instead of going home to get Thorin on the love and trust train and now he’s on it full steam ahead. That confidence in him inspires Bilbo to keep plunging ahead, and pays off for Thorin and the crew by getting them that much closer to the Lonely Mountain.

But there’s a downside to that faith. Every victory on Bilbo’s behalf feeds Thorin’s insatiable pride and emerging greed. He’s become so single-minded in his quest for the Arkenstone now that it’s within reach that the very idea of failing now is impossible. And the price of said failure would be just enough to drive Thorin over the edge he’s currently teetering on. It would be terrible enough if one of his own let him down, but if Bilbo was the one to disappoint him especially after all he’s done, that would make it even worse.

Thorin does come around to checking in on Bilbo eventually. But rather than show concern for his friend, Thorin demands to know if he nabbed the Arkenstone or not. Bilbo’s too flustered to answer and Thorin takes it as a no. His response is almost as frightening as Smaug himself. He cuts off Bilbo’s escape and marches towards him sword drawn in a cold, silent fury, ready to murder his most loyal friend for this perceived betrayal.

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The irony is he’s literally one dragon away from going full Targaryen on Bilbo.

This confrontation gives Smaug ample time to catch up to them, though the other dwarfs arrive and save the two from being barbecued. It turns into a game of hide and seek among the ruins of Erebor with more than a few close calls. The most heart-pounding is when they notice coins apparently falling from the ceiling but they’re really coming loose from Smaug quietly stalking overhead.

The company eventually hides in a room housing the bodies of fellow dwarfs who perished there long ago. These were people they knew and loved who barricaded themselves in there hoping to avoid Smaug’s wrath for a time, but died in unspeakable agony. The bleakness of their situation hits them right where it hurts the most.

Balin suggests that they could survive for a few days if they hide in the mines, but Thorin says no. They’re not ending this huddled together in fear like the poor victims in this room. If they’re going into that good night, they’re not going gently, and they’re taking Smaug with them. For that brief shining moment, the Thorin we know and love is back and ready to kick some ass with the sentiment I opened this review with, and it is awesome.

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Admittedly Thorin’s plan is a bit convoluted, even for me. Peter Jackson conceded he barely knew what to do for the climax since this was originally going to be the halfway mark back when The Hobbit was two movies instead of three. It also relies on us swallowing the fact that Smaug, who’s proven himself to be far too clever to fall for any of the dwarfs’ trickery, is now okay with blindly pursuing them like an animal. However I’m willing to buy it since it’s likely a combination of pride and hunger that’s driving Smaug at this point; when was the last time he actually ate anything, I wonder?

The dwarfs split up, lead Smaug to the forge and trick him into lighting it. Thankfully it’s still in working order and the dwarfs and Bilbo use it to build a trap for the beast. Seeing how the machinery of the forges work is actually pretty cool. If you’re the type of person who watches things like mechanical pieces coming together to create something to chill out, this will be for you, even with a giant dragon and some dwarfs running amok through it.

Bilbo leads Smaug to an ancient hall where the dragon regains his voice. He deduces they had help from the people of Laketown and decides he’s going to fly over there to show them his gratitude. It’s implied this is something he’s wanted to do for a while, just go destroy the town for kicks, which makes him even more diabolical. Thorin distracts Smaug with some namecalling and reveals the giant freshly forged golden statue of Thror he and the gang created. Smaug is enchanted by the shiny until it falls apart and buries him in an avalanche of molten gold. It looks like everything is finally coming up Thorhouse…

…until Smaug remembers there’s one more movie left and he bursts from his liquefied tomb before it solidifies. He crashes through Erebor’s front gate vowing to show the dwarfs what revenge really looks like, sheds his golden coat and makes a beeline for Laketown declaring “I am fire, I am DEATH.”

And the film closes on Bilbo unable to do more than count the seconds until thousands of innocents die because of them.

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“…What have we done?”

Trust me, having to wait an entire year on such a grim cliffhanger was a nightmare. This was my Infinity War a good five years before Infinity War happened. I wish I could say that makes The Battle of the Five Armies Avengers: Endgame, but I’ll have save my thoughts for when we come to that. It’s arguably the darkest ending of any of the Middle Earth films. At least Fellowship of the Ring had Frodo and Sam alive together while Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn kick off their rescue of Merry and Pippin, and The Two Towers had the victory at Helm’s Deep going for it. The haunting end credits song by Ed Sheeran doesn’t help either; though one must wonder if his Game of Thrones character had it on his mind while facing Drogon in Season 7.

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“I see fire, burning the OH GOD THE PAIN AAAAAAAHHHHHH!!”

Many consider Desolation of Smaug an improvement over An Unexpected Journey, but for me this is where the cracks in the trilogy begin to show. Maybe Peter Jackson should have followed George Miller’s example and shot the whole thing out in the desert where no executive could touch him. That’s not to say the movie’s bad, however, not at all. Unless you’re Toy Story 2, The Empire Strikes Back or A Very Potter Sequel, it’s not easy being the middle installment of a trilogy with a set beginning and end. I’m just not crazy about how some plot points like the whole running and hiding from the Master or the extra long chase with Smaug are stretched out to fill the requisite 2 hour 30 minute runtime or add that extra conflict for more drama. It’s a sad side effect of craving a trilogy out of a single book.

And while I praised Howard Shore’s score earlier, here’s something about it that bothers me – there’s no Misty Mountains theme for the dwarfs! Maybe Shore was worried about it reusing it too many times; I admit between the trailer and the movie they play it a lot, but it was a catchy and kickass tune in the same way The Bridge of Khazad Dum is for the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ll have to rewatch The Battle of the Five Armies to see if it makes a return or not. I sure hope it does.

But those nitpicks and other problems aside, the good of The Desolation of Smaug largely outweighs the bad. As if I need to repeat myself, I love that most of the characters were further enhanced from the book. Legolas’ inclusion is neat, the locations are great with a lot of cool creative fight scenes, Tauriel is a welcome addition, Thorin and Bilbo’s arcs are deeply intriguing, and Smaug is plain awesome. I still prefer the lighter tone of An Unexpected Journey, but this is a great followup worthy of its own entry thanks to these qualities.

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“And somehow I reviewed this epic monstrosity in slightly less the word count it took me to discuss its predecessor! I think I’ve finally nailed this blogging thing.”


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Artwork by Charles Moss. Screencaps courtesy of movie-screencaps.com

* – social justice elf warrior