MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’

The-Hobbit-Desolation-of-Smaug-Poster

Film: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Directed By: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage

First of all, a word to the naysayers: “Desolation of Smaug” refers to the area around Erebor which has been smote by the dragon. It doesn’t, contrary to apparently popular belief, refer to his inevitable downfall, so don’t have a moment when he’s still alive at the end of this film. It’s been twelve months since Peter Jackson revisited Middle-earth with An Unexpected Journey and now that the novelty has worn off, proper stock can be taken of the film. It certainly didn’t endear everyone – much was made of the leaden pace, one-note [invented] villain, and over-reliance on special effects after the sweeping naturalism of Lord of the Rings. I myself, predictably, loved it, but I’m not above acknowledging that the film has issues. The Desolation of Smaug has a lot to prove against this background, with the general call seeming to be for more action and fewer songs (you’re all spoilsports). In this regard the film delivers amply – it’s an exhilarating, often terrific blockbuster, but it too has more than its share of issues. Annoyingly, a lot of this has to do with its departures from the source material.

The story picks up almost exactly where the last film left off. After a brief framing sequence, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and the company of dwarves press on towards Erebor in their quest to reclaim the dwarvish homeland. They must first make their way through Mirkwood, encountering shapeshifting bear Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) and the Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace) before emerging at Laketown, home of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) deals with an emerging threat at the fortress of Dol Guldur.

The first thing that struck me after seeing this film was quite how much An Unexpected Journey had suffered from the decision to split the films into three. The Dol Guldur segment illustrates this more than most, as it felt unfinished in the last one and here pops up only briefly as an explanation for Gandalf’s whereabouts. It’s unfortunate, as taken on the whole it’s a well-evoked representation of the growing evil in Middle-earth, but the split robs it of continuity and urgency. Indeed, TDoS is in many ways more efficient than its predecessor but it tends to skim over certain events and completely overdo others. The reckless disregard for the source material amplifies this by wasting certain characters (blink and you’ll miss Beorn) and replacing atmosphere with spectacle. The Elvenking’s halls are gorgeously realised, but Mirkwood itself is a huge disappointment. The forest is described as choking and claustrophobic, a nightmarish enclave of twisted trees and black shadows but we see almost none of that here. Bilbo does get to stick his head above the parapet and see the butterflies, but the opportunity to exploit Mirkwood’s evil, drawing parallels between its murky confines and the growing darkness throughout Middle-earth, is wasted. This might have been used to mirror the tendencies surfacing in certain characters but more importantly, to illustrate exactly why the threat in Dol Guldur is so great it has lured Gandalf away.

There are other notable issues with the film beyond its structure. The effects, for example, are frequently terrible and leave one yearning for the detail and utter immersion of LotR. Further, in perhaps the most unforgiveable move, a number of scenes are direct rehashes of that trilogy and specifically The Fellowship of the Ring. The opening scene with Thorin in Bree recreates the hobbits meeting Aragorn in Fellowship, while a later scene between Tauriel and Kili recalls Arwen’s rescuing Frodo from the Ringwraiths. I enjoyed the nods to LotR in the last film as they felt warm and affectionate, but here they just feel lazy. In Tauriel’s case, it feeds into a wider issue with her presentation. I loved Tauriel, both as a character and as a statement (you can, quite simply, fuck off if you don’t see the point of a capable female character in the midst of Tolkien’s sausage fest), but this scene threatens to undo the writers’ good intentions. The fact it’s the product of reshoots demanded by the studio makes it all the more inert. Evangeline Lily signed on under the explicit understanding that there would be no love triangle and both she and the writers go to great effort to downplay any such notions. Lily’s performance is easily one of the best in the film – shrewd and straight-talking, she looks perplexed when Thranduil suggests Legolas may have feelings for her and instead infuses Tauriel with a considerate mind and profound sense of spirit that sets her far apart from her fellow Elves. The added scene smacks of clear contrivance for film three, and does a great disservice to Lily’s thoughtful portrayal.

Now, all this notwithstanding, there is a lot to celebrate in TDoS. In fact, the film is so often brilliant that it tends to make the flaws more glaring. It’s faster in pace and more dextrous with its action scenes, and it transforms some of the more curious moments (such as the barrel sequence) into a hugely entertaining, rip-roaring setpiece. The easily bored who complained about the last one should have no such qualms here, and with the exception of a hugely overblown final half hour the film never feels bloated or messy. Its best attribute, as with last time out, is the cast. Jackson and his team have cast The Hobbit impeccably and several newcomers here stand out for particular attention. Orlando Bloom slips back into the role of Legolas with ease, while Lee Pace positively owns his father Thranduil, Elvenking extraordinaire and Regina George of Middle-earth. Luke Evans is fantastic as Bard, whose enhanced screen time is actually one of the finer departures from the book. Bard has a key role to play in later events but comes across as loose and distant on paper. In the film however, the writers introduce us to his family and township proper, rooting and contextualising his courage and heroism. The screenplay’s characterisation is very strong throughout – it advances the encroaching darkness within Thorin and Bilbo very well, and both Armitage and Freeman are excellent. Thorin’s transformation in particular is striking, obsessiveness and manipulative greed gnawing away at the gruffer, colder presence of the previous film. Bilbo meanwhile must deal with the insidious influence of the Ring, and it is a credit to both Freeman and the writers that its power is felt keenly on several occasions without it ever being exploited.

However, the key character for this film was always going to be Smaug. A well-etched antagonist is vital in any narrative, but when your villain is a talking dragon extra care must be taken. Benedict Cumberbatch would be the first to tell you that he did a lot more than simply voice this creature – he helped create him for screen, and the results are spectacular. Smaug is a vast, hulking presence, as loquacious as he is sinister, at once destructive and majestic. When he loses his cool (quite literally), he dominates the piece, breathing searing conviction into every word of dread used to describe him. It is perhaps a slight misfortune that the decidedly overwrought ending doesn’t show us more of him, but it’s telling that breathtakingly climactic final scene evinced near-riotous gasps of anticipation in my screening.

Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy may never truly hit the heights of its illustrious predecessor, but The Desolation of Smaug advances it as a worthy successor in its own right. Even amidst its myriad of flaws, the makers’ affection for Tolkien’s world and the heart at the centre of his story remains clear. This is by far a more satisfying film than its predecessor – frustrating, yes, and contentious in its treatment of the text, but for action, thrills, and sheer entertainment it does extremely well. It’s perhaps not the spectacle Middle-earth deserves in the long run, but definitely the one it needed right now. Try not to be such a cynic (rich coming from me, I know) and go in with an open mind.

 

SCORE: B

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  • abs1

    “I loved Tauriel, both as a character and as a statement (you can, quite simply, fuck off if you don’t see the point of a capable female character in the midst of Tolkien’s sausage fest), but this scene threatens to undo the writers’ good intentions.”

    Are you saying that Peter Jackson is a better writer than Tolkien?

    Tauriel is completely irrelevant to the story and completely irrelevant to the movie version of the story as well. The “romance” between her and Kili is not only forced and pointless, but makes no sense in the grander theme of Tolkien’s mythology. I quite liked Jackson’s LOTR films, but his Hobbit venture is a failure. It add’s nothing, but instead manages to take away so much that made the Hobbit a good story. And not only that, but by introducing Sauron in Desolation of Smaug, he takes impact away from Smaug himself. By introducing the silly Tauriel/Kili romance, he takes away from the friendship of Legolas and Giml and what that represents in Tolkien’s mythology. I could go on, but why bother?

  • David Horatio Hunt

    I don’t think anyone’s accusing Peter Jackson of being a better writer than Tolkien. I’d say about 78% of what Jackson added to the movies was mostly pointless filler and detracted from the story but he does know the modern movie-going audience better than Tolkien. You can’t make a movie nowadays without a strong female character. I’d say of all his additions, I like Tauriel the best. You could just as easily argue that everyone besides Gandalf, Bilbo, Thorin, Smaug, and Bard are irrelevant to the story.

    As for the romance, it’s really hard to judge until we see how it plays out in the third movie. I don’t see how a dwarf/elf romance makes less sense in Tolkien’s mythology than a man/elf one. And Gimli pretty much fell in love with Galadriel, so there is some precedent.

    This Hobbit venture is in no wise a failure. The Hobbit as a book was a lot more juvenile oriented. It had a completely different atmosphere than the Lord of the Rings. I think Peter Jackson has done a very good job in capturing the more light hearted essence of the Hobbit while still maintaining the overall integrity of Middle Earth. I was wary when I first heard that he was going to make the Hobbit because I didn’t think it could be done. I have been very pleasantly surprised so far.

  • Grace

    I could respond to this, but the person who’s already replied below outlined my sentiments quite well. I don’t know where you found the words “Peter Jackson is a better writer than Tolkien” in the sentence you’ve quoted from my review. What I wrote is that Tauriel is necessary as a statement, because there are hardly any female characters of import in the story. You’ll also notice that I point out the studio’s interference and insistence on the potential love story, not Jackson’s. Please read things properly before you comment!

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  • Darth_

    I agree. In the Lord of the Rings, Jackson showed his talent honestly. Not saying he is better than Tolkein, but the movies you could have forgiven him for the changes and the character substituions. In the case of the Hobbit, he created a character. That to me is slightly insulting. It’s like saying to the author that his book lacked this, and lacked that. That is where Jackson loses points.

    I hate Kili, in fact, I hate all the dwarves in the movie. I hate the love triangle nonsense, additionally by including Tauriel, he takes away the impact and message of Eowyn riding to war in the Return of the King. Including Sauron definitely took away from the movie. I am guilty for looking for LOTR nostalgia in the film, but that scene certainly stole everything from Smaug. I think they could have done without it.

    Overall, the Hobbit is a failed movie. It works as a button smashing video game if anything.

  • Darth_

    You all misunderstand what she said. Before attacking somebody for not doing something properly, try reading between the lines.

    By creating a character to put your spin on the movie, suggest that you think your work is better than the original. By the writer of this review not having a problem with that, it suggest he is thinking too that Tolkein’s work needed adjusting.

    Jackson’s decision to create and change the story is insulting to the work Tolkein did. Changing the story is one thing, but creating elements and adding in new aspects is just wrong.

  • abs1

    “I don’t know where you found the words “Peter Jackson is a better writer than Tolkien” in the sentence you’ve quoted from my review.”

    I found it right here:

    “you can, quite simply, fuck off if you don’t see the point of a capable female character in the midst of Tolkien’s sausage fest”

    Maybe you should re-read your own article.

  • Grace

    First of all, the writer of this article is a girl (me), so well done for noticing that.

    Secondly, Tolkien’s writing is a product of its time, and like most writing of that era, it is guilty of casting female characters in very traditional or reductive roles, if they even appear at all. Nothing is wrong with his writing, but there are problems with this aspect of his characterisation. It may not be exclusive to him and it certainly doesn’t take away from his extraordinary imagination or intellect, but it is a fault that modern filmmakers are in a position to correct. THAT is why I support the decision to include Tauriel. I think, as Evangeline Lily herself said, that it’s unacceptable to make a trilogy of fantasy movies in this day and age – even if you are basing it on older works – and not include a positive female character. If you don’t agree with that, you’re free to dislike the film and take issue with the writers, but you should be able to acknowledge the issue they’re trying to address. Especially in an industry that routinely downplays and dismisses female characters or makes them subservient to men, it’s a very important and commendable move to include a woman who’s as strong and capable as Tauriel.

    What the STUDIO did by insisting there be some kind of romantic angle is disgusting, but that wasn’t the writers’ intention.

  • Grace

    Again, this doesn’t say Peter Jackson is a better writer than Tolkien.

    This says there’s a fault with Tolkien’s treatment of his women characters, and that is something Jackson (and his THREE co-writers on this film, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Guillermo del Toro, so maybe don’t single out just him when you’re feeling angsty?) sought to address with Tauriel. She is a very worthy inclusion and not one that should be dismissed on account of the studio’s meddling with her role. There are many reasons to take issue with this film, but she is not one of them.

  • abs1

    Pointless.