The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Posted: December 21, 2013 in Movie Reviews

In the next chapter of The Hobbit trilogy, Bilbo Baggins must put his courage to the test without waking Smaug the dragon.

In the next chapter of The Hobbit trilogy, Bilbo Baggins must put his courage to the test without waking Smaug the dragon.

Middle acts in film trilogies are typically the most difficult logistically to create, because they don’t have a definitive beginning or ending. Use The Two Towers as an example, where it begins exactly where the previous film left off, with no need of character introductions, and—–after over 3 ½ hours—- still doesn’t accomplish the goal that was set forth in The Fellowship of the Ring. While the first act usually establishes the characters, settings, and the objective that will eventually be accomplished in the final third act, the middle act bears the enormous responsibility of sustaining the suspense and carrying it into the final chapter. Fortunately for The Lord of the Rings, the middle chapter does just that. Now, on Peter Jackson’s second round of Middle-earth movie-making, the middle film must accomplish just as much.

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 Summary: (No spoilers)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug picks up where we left Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and the dwarves in An Unexpected Journey, fleeing from Azog the Defiler as they make their way towards the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their long-lost treasure. As they seek to elude the evil grasp of their pursuers, their path leads them to the house of Beorn—–the last living Skin-Changer who can take the form of a bear—–who supplies them with provisions and confirms to Gandalf what was told to him by Radagast: that there is indeed an evil sorcerer known as the Necromancer living in the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur.

Gandalf rides with the dwarves as far as Mirkwood before leaving them, giving them a few last words of advice, and heads north to confront the Necromancer. As Thorin & Co. make their way through the treacherous darkness of Mirkwood, they are suddenly attacked by giant spiders, and Bilbo’s burglar skills—–with the help of his newly found ring—–becomes of great use. When the Company is taken by the Wood-Elves into the stronghold of King Thranduil (Lee Pace—–Lincoln), Bilbo is once again burdened with the responsibility of getting his comrades out of their dilemma.

The Hobbit:DOS_Woodland Realm

 Bilbo eventually manages to get them all into barrels and send them down the river, being tracked all the while by both the Orcs and by Thranduil’s son Legolas (Orlando Bloom—–Pirates of the Caribbean) and female elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lily—–Lost). The Company’s path eventually leads them to Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans—–Clash of the Titans), who smuggles them into Lake-Town, the seedy fishing village on the lake that lies at the base of the Lonely Mountain, wherein lies Erebor and its vast treasure, as well as the dragon Smaug who stands guard over it. It is then that Thorin reveals to Bilbo the true reason he has come on the journey: to find and reclaim the Arkenstone, that which will restore Thorin’s position as King Under the Mountain. Tasked with this one, critical mission and armed with his ring, Bilbo is sent into the dark of Erebor where he prays with every step that a particular someone will not be at home.

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First off, let’s address some basic reasons behind the disappointing reception of the previous Hobbit film. Coming off of Return of the King, both fans and casual movie-goers alike had certain expectations that they thought An Unexpected Journey should have lived up to: high energy; an engrossing narrative; enormous action on a massive scale; and that gritty, brooding tone that defined the trilogy. When it didn’t have most of these things, fans dismissed it as a bad sequel and condemned it for what it wasn’t. It was too long, they said. It slowed down and became dull, they claimed. It didn’t have the same vigor and magnitude as Lord of the Rings, they complained. I too had my slight disadvantages with it (see “The Power of One”), but overall it was a solid return into the world of Middle-earth that we have come to adore and love. But whatever your qualms may be with it, watch The Desolation of Smaug and be astounded.

 Bilbo Baggins in this next chapter is not the same fussy little hobbit who complained about the state of his carpet and fainted at the thought of a fire-breathing dragon. His months in the cold, bitter wilderness facing trolls and goblins have hardened him into a sturdy burglar and a fierce warrior. But more-over is the effect of the One Ring that he carries with him at all times, which has changed him not only physically, but also psychologically. He finds his boldness and tenacity growing stronger by the day in ways that even a few weeks in the wilderness couldn’t accomplish; and the thought of losing his ring and being parted with it quickly becomes intoxicating to him. Even Gandalf notices something is not quite normal, stating, “You are not the same hobbit you once were.”

The Hobbit: DOS_Bilbo Sting

 The Desolation of Smaug sees the addition of several fresh faces to the trilogy, some new and some old. Legolas is a character not technically in the book, but is wisely inserted into the story with the mindset that the Company’s Elven captor in the book is his father. But this is a different Legolas than we know him as in Lord of the Rings, much like his father. They are both greedy, callous beings who think only of how the events of the world will affect them. When it is stated that the rising evil from Dol Guldur will infest other lands, Thranduil responds that the other lands are of no concern to him. It is Tauriel in this trio who is the voice of reasoning and echoes Merry’s words from The Two Towers that we are all part of this world, and what affects one will ultimately affect everyone.

Which brings us to Tauriel, the entirely new and made up character. Many Peter Jackson naysayers are claiming that Jackson’s love for the Tolkien lore has run out and that his dedication to faithfully adapt the works of Tolkien have been suspended, using Tauriel as an example. Before giving insight into what she brings to the story, let’s first bring to light the fact that The Hobbit is very short on female characters, and that without Galadriel’s brief appearance in the first film the story itself would be completely devoid of any feminine influence. The basic truth is that Tauriel is a completely relevant character that lends herself tremendously to the events of the story. True as it may be that she’s not “in the book,” her character never at any time felt inappropriately forced into the plot. In fact, a few key scenes indicated that she may even become the tool that molds Legolas into the elf we know and love.

The Hobbit: DOS_Tauriel and Legolas

 Also new to Middle-earth is Bard, a character of great importance in Tolkien’s story. It was Bard’s ancestor, Girion of Dale, who tried to kill Smaug the dragon when he attacked Erebor. Having failed in this task, Bard must live with this mark on his family’s name and hopes someday to restore it. But, for certain, the greatest character and undoubtedly the most anticipated ever since we saw his slithery eye beneath a pile of gold is Smaug.

There’s quite a bit of story to get through before we’re finally and properly introduced to Smaug, but the wait is so well worth it. Smaug is a slithery, eerie beast whose voice would cause even the most valiant of warriors to quiver with fear. Brilliantly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness) who also provided the motion-capture work on many of the facial expressions and movements, Smaug is the very epitome of awesome power and ferocity. When Bilbo first descends into the mountain, he at first is quite relieved to discover that the dragon is nowhere to be seen. However, one small avalanche of gold reveals the beast sleeping underneath Bilbo’s very feet. Even when wearing the ring, Smaug is still able to detect Bilbo’s presence simply by scent.

The scene with Smaug and Bilbo’s somewhat-genteel conversation has always been iconic in the book. Their dialogue revealed that Bilbo both feared and greatly respected the dragon, and that Smaug was in no hurry to eat probably the most intellectual conversationalist he’s had the pleasure of conversing with in many a year. The scene in the film is just as, if not more, mesmerizing. It’s the Riddles in the Dark scene of Desolation of Smaug and is the sequence that could easily go on for an hour and still be just as captivating and enthralling. The entire scene is cleverly set up and executed with Bilbo deviously dodging Smaug’s wily inquiries, telling him “I am from under hill” and claiming “I am called Barrel-Rider.” It’s done so effectively that you wish it would never end.

Smaug the Terrible: chiefest and greatest of calamities.

Smaug the Terrible: chiefest and greatest of calamities.

Those who thought the first film moved at a cumbersome pace and was too drawn out will be pleased to know that the second film fixes those pacing issues. From its beginning to ending, the film stops only at the right moments to catch its breath before plunging back into the story. As much as An Unexpected Journey truly feels like you’re watching a 210-minute long film, The Desolation of Smaug moves at a satisfying pace and ends before you ever consider glancing at your watch.

This middle act also feels more in line with The Lord of the Rings in terms of tone, style, action, and storytelling. While the first Hobbit  played on the book’s more jovial tone and implemented many of its songs, this next Hobbit  is a grittier film with no songs and a darker narrative. The inclusion of the Orcs of Dol Guldur and the foreboding evil that resides within it is reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings and ultimately makes us realize that this is indeed the same Middle-earth. In effect, this film improves upon itself from the last in almost every way.

In a nutshell:

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an exciting, lively, and engaging middle chapter to one of the greatest film series of this century. While it still doesn’t have that artistic flair and endearing moments of emotion that made The Lord of the Rings so great, this is for certain a step above the last and does a magnificent job of sustaining the energy of the last, upping the ante, and seguing us into the final exhilarating chapter of The Hobbit.

 

9.5 stars

 

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