The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
As is now my modus operandi, I will provide a brief, spoiler-free, review right at the top, before moving into more in-depth discussion, a transition that will be clearly marked for readers. This one is very long, even for me, and a I beg forgiveness for some hyper-criticism. It’s only because I love the source material so much.
As I was walking out of the theatre last Friday, I found myself expressing a few preliminary thoughts to some friends of mine about The Desolation of Smaug, the second in Peter Jackson’s trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, The Hobbit. I noted that one of the things that I liked most of all was the way that the movie approached the character of Bard the Bowman, who was introduced so quickly in the book, but with requisite time and alterations, is turned into a much more complete character on screen. As I finished that point, a teenage girl in front of me spun around, jabbed a finger before my chest and shouted “I weep for canon. I WEEP FOR CANON!” before storming off, distraught.
Aside from just recording a mildly amusing strop, I wanted to mention this encounter here, at the beginning, because it ties into something that I really want to talk about regards my overall opinion of Jackson’s latest venture through Middle-Earth. I’ll get back to it by the end.
Anyway, here we are again. An Unexpected Journey was my film of the year for 2012, in defiance of most critical opinion, a position that came from a love of both Tolkien and the way that Peter Jackson has come to adapt them into a whole new medium. I felt that An Unexpected Journey was a triumph, Tolkien on screen in as memorable and enjoyable a fashion as the diehard fans could have liked. Or, at least, the sub-section of diehard fans that I count myself as part of, since so many others are tripping over themselves to decry most parts of the entire enterprise.
But I still loved it, and rather than yammer on you can just read what I said then. Could The Desolation of Smaug live up to that first instalment? Could it avoid the dangers of “middle chapter syndrome”? Could it be another Jacksonian triumph?
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the adventure seeking hobbit of the Shire, continues with the Dwarven company on the Quest of Erebor, concealing the magical ring that grants him invisibility. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) seeks the famed Arkenstone so he can lead his people home while Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) thinks only of slaying a dragon before he can be put to even more evil ends. Together with the others members of the company, they face many dangers and adventures: The skin changing Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), the bargaining Elvish King (Lee Pace) and his familiar son Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the deadly archer Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and her curiosity with Kili (Aiden Turner), the smuggling bargeman Bard (Luke Evans) and his dispute with the conniving Master of Lake-Town (Stephen Fry), the pursuing pale Orc Azog (Manu Bennet) and the mysterious Necromancer of Dol Guldur (Benedict Cumberbatch). And all before confronting the ”chiefest and greatest of calamities” himself: Smaug the Magnificent (Cumberbatch, again)
It may not quite match the heights that An Unexpected Journey reached, but The Desolation of Smaug is still another fantastic offering from this production team, full of all the same excitement, quality and love for the works of Tolkien. While it has problematic areas, I still left the theatre more than satisfied, and looking forward to a third instalment.
The sheer energy on display will be enough to blow so many away, a far cry from the slow build up of An Unexpected Journey. Action scene moves into action scene, threat moves to threat. Jackson flies though encounters with Orcs, skinchangers, giant spiders and deadly Elves, and all in the first half hour or so. The electric pace is too fast on occasion, and one feels that the editing room was a well visited shrine for Jackson following the common complaint of “dull” aimed at An Unexpected Journey.
The Desolation of Smaug is many things, but it could never be described as dull. The action is, as always, very well presented, with a plethora of set-pieces and stand-out moments. The plot moves swiftly, retaining the episodic feel of An Unexpected Journey, but perhaps taking a little bit more time on the more interesting episodes, like the escape from the Elven Halls or the political struggle in Lake-Town. All before a breathtaking finale within the Lonely Mountain itself, leading to a cliffhanger that will enrage only because it is so perfectly poised. The Desolation of Smaug throws in everything that it can, to an almost overwhelming extent, from “The Quest Of Erebor” of The Lord of the Rings’ appendices to an altered confrontation with Smaug. There is padding, to be sure, and there are times when you won’t want to see one more Orc get cut down, but as an epic fantasy plot, it rarely lets itself down.
Freeman has less to do here than he had in An Unexpected Journey, and The Desolation of Smaug might simply be the story of Bilbo’s continuing usefulness rather than proving his worth. Still, he continues to embody everyone’s favourite Ring-bearer (we all know its true) to a tee, with all of the humility, wide-eyedness and sense of adventure that is required. Armitage has improved over the course of two films, continuing to give us a Thorin that is nuanced in his creeping obsession with gold, while McKellan is as good as ever as the iconic wizard. Much of the rest of the cast lacks the screentime to really shine. Of the Dwarven company, only Aidan Turner is truly stand-out, given a romantic sub-plot with the invented “she-elf” character played by Lilly, a move that, while ambitious, did not really pay off to its fullest extent. Bloom steps back into the shoes of Legolas with ease but has little other function to perform than slaughtering Orcs, while Cumberbatch excels as both the throaty and utterly villainous Smaug – a captivating performance for a captivating character – and the Necromancer. Limiting myself to the true stand out from the rest of the cast (with some failing to excel), Evans delights in his extended role of Bard, bringing a very real depth to this descendent of Kings.
Visually, the film has the same gorgeous appeal of every other piece Jackson has made in Middle-Earth, with CGI creation, set building and fight chorography that brooks so few rivals, with so many positives that it would be impossible to go through them all so briefly. A few frame rate issues and some concerning visuals choices remain, but they are minor complaints in a sea of imagery that will amaze as much as it inspires. The script flows as well as any that the crew has come up with before, and bubbles over with memorable lines, dialogue and moments, even in the dreadfully presented love triangle. Howard Shore continues to imbue Middle-Earth with his musical genius as well, making The Desolation of Smaug the feast for the senses that we always knew it was going to be.
As a film, The Desolation of Smaug explores themes of greed, gathering darkness, obsession, isolation and even nationality in its two and a half hour running time, a production that grabs hold of the viewers attention right from the off and never truly lets go. While elements of the child-friendly source material pervade, it is still a serious and oft-bloody movie, which approaches its story with intelligence and vigour (for the most part).
Jackson trumps for action a few too many times, allows a disappointing love-plot to bloom and struggles through some of the same faults that marred An Unexpected Journey (many of which are of Tolkien’s making, it must said). But his The Desolation of Smaug is a thrilling spectacle of colour and sound, featuring great performances from its really key players, that builds to the reveal of the titular dragon wonderfully. Another triumph? Not to be said quite as loudly as I did this time last year, but I would say: Yes. Highly recommended.
More in depth discussion, with spoilers, from here on out.
It is, once again, another excellent story told by this production team and this cast, full of epic adventure, excitement, action and emotion. You always want to state these kind of things right off the bat when it comes to movies that actually mean something very significant to you, because there is always the worry that it will all come crashing down. But it doesn’t. This is a good, good movie, with a good, good plot, one of the best of the year easily, but maybe not the best.
There is just such a gigantic scope in this entire project, and where An Unexpected Journey was complex, The Desolation of Smaug is ever more intricate. So much passes by in the 160 minutes that you might be begging for an intermission just to catch your metaphorical breath. Covering a span of time roughly between chapters seven to thirteen of the source material, The Desolation of Smaug takes us from skin-changers to dragons, with elves, Orcs, wargs spiders, lake-men, Necromancers and wizards in-between, not to mention talk of rings, Arkenstones and revolution. We get looks into the internal politics of Elvish and human lands, each with their own well-defined characters and problems. We get prequel scenes.
It is just epic in its scope, and beautiful in its execution. One of the key changes that Jackson has made has been to turn the entire “Quest for Erebor” from a gold-focused mission, to one of a far grander design: reclaiming a homeland and getting revenge, finding a place for the Dwarves in the world again, a high fantasy Book of Exodus. That remains in spades here, as the Dwarven search for a place to call home is juxtaposed with several other lands and factions in their own homelands, and the visual imagery reinforces the idea that this quest is one far beyond base desire for treasure and wealth.
But it is in The Desolation of Smaug that Jackson and company begin to slip back into the realms of greed, mostly in the form of Thorin but also with several other characters. The Desolation of Smaug introduces that new dynamic to the quest and to the story at large, one only partially hinted at in the first movie, that members of the company have darker motivations, and that any search for pure glory can be easily undermined by lust for petty objects. There is a dichotomy in The Desolation of Smaug, between the pure-hearted folks like Balin, Gandalf and Bard with the more sinister characters, like the Master, like Smaug and like Thorin, with Bilbo Baggins caught in the middle, still the same old hobbit, but already suffering from exposure to the One Ring.
It is rare that you will find a movie that is able to suitably intermesh these two polar extremes – epic motivations and goals with base desires and dreams – into its main plot, and manage to make a really decent swing at elaborating and expanding both of them. The Desolation of Smaug is the story of the continuing trek to find Jerusalem for the Dwarves, but it’s also about the rotten core of the whole venture.
But for all of that, and it is nearly all good, The Desolation of Smaug falls back on the old reliable of action far too much for its own good. Jackson and his editors were clearly worried about the common criticisms of An Unexpected Journey, mostly aimed squarely at its opening hour. No long set-ups in The Desolation of Smaug. We open with the company still being pursued by Azog, and having to flee from their lives from a gigantic bear. Then giant spiders, then a thrilling escape from prison with Orcs firing on all sides, then sneaking into Lake-Town, then breaking into the armoury, then sneaking into the Lonely Mountain, then fighting Orcs in Lake-Town and then fighting Smaug and then Gandalf in Dol Guldur too and flashbacks to Smaug’s destruction of Dale and such is the unrelenting tide of action.
Jackson is a good enough director to have plenty of exciting scenes without the need for bloodshed, but he still goes completely overboard with his sword and bowplay, glorying in his chorography, daring critics to try and label his creation as “dull” this time around. They certainly can’t, but at times you worry that the label will instead be “dumb”. Thankfully, the action scenes are exhilarating enough and bridged by non-action scenes of sufficient quality to deflect this possibility, but it is undeniable that The Desolation of Smaug goes completely over the top with his non-stop Orc killings, Smaug smashing into things or even the Master just smashing Bard’s face with a piece of wood.
You compare that to An Unexpected Journey, which had an exciting prologue, but then shied away from violence for the rest of the first act. Both movie keep the episodic feel, moving from chapter to chapter, set-piece to set-piece, but where An Unexpected Journey had unexpected parties, meetings with Elves in Rivendell and riddles in the dark, The Desolation of Smaug has violence, violence and then just a bit more violence at the end. The balance between action-heavy and dialogue-heavy is skewed badly.
You cannot fault The Desolation of Smaug for pace though. The entire movie has a tremendous energy coursing through it, from the first shot of a rain-sodden Bree to Bilbo’s last horrified glimpse at Smaug. Jackson only rarely lingers in one place too long, set on his course of increasing the tempo at nearly all times, wanting more thrills and spills to go with his dialogue and other production details. From the very off, we are under no illusions as to the hunted nature of the company, as they spend the first hour running from various enemies and just trying to survive in a very hostile world. As well as that, they’re operating under a deadline of reaching a hidden door by “the last light of Durin’s Day”, so the feel of being in one elongated race movie is very real and ever-present.
It might sound like I am being very critical. I want to be clear about this. I appreciate the need for action, as The Desolation of Smaug has loads of great stuff in that regard. I appreciate the need for pace and tempo, and The Desolation of Smaug is a thrill ride all round, a rollercoaster of emotion and action. But, speaking purely for myself, I could tolerate a certain slowing down of some sections. The trek through Mirkwood, the escape, the politics of Lake-Town, all parts where I would have been more than ready to see longer scenes at the expense of later action moments. But Jackson isn’t making these movies purely for me (mores the pity) and I can understand and sympathise with the need to make a more traditionally exciting project. Jackson has done that, and done enough to still make it on a par with his other Tolkien works.
Part of his great skill when it comes to story and plot is his ability to change and craft the written story for his visual ends. He’s been doing it for his entire stay in Middle-Earth, but The Desolation of Smaug is probably the most obvious example where the source material has been extensively changed. With one glaring exception, I feel that is nearly all for the better. The Quest for Erebor is given a more tangible goal – finding the Arkenstone so Thorin can lead all the Dwarves against Smaug. Bard, such a nothing character in the book, is given a family, a political role and a more elaborated reason for wanting to take down the dragon. Thranduil is given baser motivations and an isolationist stance. Legolas make an appearance exactly where it is plausible that he would. The unfilmable “Barrels out of Bond” becomes one of the set-pieces of the year. Lake-Town is turned from a background into a breathing city. The Dwarves actually try and take Smaug down themselves, giving them a role in that endeavour far more prominent than their bystander-ish approach in the book. The talking thrush is ditched. The One Ring, in line with what came later, is shown as more malevolent. Bolg is more prominent. Azog is more prominent, key for effective villains. Smaug gets more to do, taking advantage of Cumberbatch’s performance. The Ringwraiths are hinted at, providing some depth and connections within the universe. Sauron is revealed in classic prequel style.
The key exception I mentioned is, of course, the romantic sub-plot, but I will get to that in just a moment. For now, suffice to say that if anyone had the chops to adapt this section of the story to film, it is Peter Jackson, who largely knows what to keep, what to cut and what to alter, to better suit this new medium. He recognises the flaws – yes, the flaws – of the source material and how he can change them for the big screen. The result is something that approaches real greatness as adaptation, but perhaps due to the propensity for bloodshed, falls just that bit short.
Jackson goes with a three forked structure for most of his movie, that sort-of splits into four by the end and I think that it works well enough. The main quest with Bilbo and the Dwarven company obviously takes the lion’s share of the attention, and it is an engrossing a tale as it was when Tolkien first wrote it. Then there is Gandalf’s personal quest to find out the truth about the presence in Dol Guldur, taken mostly from appendices/Silmarillion material with a large degree of artistic license from Jackson. This sub-plot is, as it was in An Unexpected Journey, mostly just exists so we can take a breather from the more weightier drama in the main plot, which sometimes approaches Game of Thrones style fantasy over the high/epic stuff with Gandalf. Lastly, there is Tauriel, Legolas and Kili, a bizarre and struggling love triangle intertwined with a hunt for Orcs, something that is mostly a distraction and fails to really work out. If you want to be technical, Bard has his own sub-plot too, one that I enjoyed immensely due to the work that went in to that character, but he is wrapped up in the adventure of the Dwarves for most of his screentime.
While the Elves let the whole thing down, I think that this three/four plot approach works well most of the time, allowing for some breakaways from the main focus that aren’t just meaningless filler. Jackson has drawn connections between all of them (with Sauron seeking to use Smaug for his own evil ends), and that’s important so all this additional material isn’t just some nonsense that was slapped together to increase the running time. It probably could have gotten along just fine without the romance (but not without Tauriel I think, more below), but that is not an irrecoverable black mark when it comes to pacing.
Despite the long running time this is a movie that chooses to stay focused on just a handful of characters when it comes to arcs and journeys. Surprisingly enough, the titular hobbit is back a few places in that queue. Unlike An Unexpected Journey, which was about Bilbo rising to become a useful member of the company and proving that he belonged there, The Desolation of Smaug doesn’t really seem to have anything on the same level. As it starts, Bilbo is part and parcel of the company, scouting out the warg pack of Azog. He proves his usefulness again and again, but in a reduced capacity from the source material in “Flies and Spiders” and “Barrels out of Bond”. He is briefly given material related to the insidious pull of the Ring, but this sub-plot seems to be abandoned once the company is out of Mirkwood. He finds the entrance into the Lonely Mountain, but this is a painfully elongated moment. He has the famous conversation with Smaug, but it is just one more “moment” for him to be involved in rather than a set character journey. He has so few lines and interactions throughout the movie, that it almost seems like it should be called The Dwarves And The Hobbit Was There Too: The Desolation of Smaug.
I suppose all I could say is that The Desolation of Smaug shows Bilbo becoming increasingly disillusioned with the quest after the halfway point, somewhat disgusted with how easily the Dwarves give up at the door, terrified at being sent in alone, uneasily acknowledging Smaug’s arguments against Thorin, before getting Oakenshield’s sword pointed at his chest. His closing line – “What have we done?” – exemplifies this feeling, of a bewildered hobbit suddenly realising that their actions have darker consequences, and that Thorin may well be driven mad with the gold sickness that engulfed his grandfather. But it’s all set-up and introduced too late to be as effective as it could be.
And that goes too for the Ring stuff, only it ended too early. It makes perfect sense for the Ring to be treated in the way that it is, as Tolkien essentially ret-conned its malevolence when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. Jackson has the benefit of doing the stories in a different order, so naturally the One Ring is going to be showing off a bit of its darker side. The Ring was such a random element of the book, that giving it this sort of pull of Bilbo just improves the overall experience, and offers some of The Desolation of Smaug’ best Bilbo moments, like when he savagely kills to protect it, or lies by omission to Gandalf about it. But the Ring barely forms any part of the story until late on, when it is directly mentioned by Smaug (an interesting moment, indicating a deeper magic to the dragon that was occasionally inferred in the book). Of course, this isn’t The Lord of the Rings, and the Ring is not the story. If there is a MacGuffin, it’s the Arkenstone, and that’s fine. In fact, it sort of fits, what The Desolation of Smaug does with the Arkenstone, making it more than just a very fancy jewel. But I like Jackson’s approach to the Ring – like it’s some sort of drug – and I hope to see more of that kind of thing. It’s also another effective change from the story, where the Dwarves learn of the Ring in Mirkwood.
But like I said, this is not Bilbo’s story, as is clear from the very outset. The Desolation of Smaug is framed by an opening prologue, an adaptation of the Appendices “The Quest for Erebor”. Thorin is the first character we see, then Gandalf. Jackson very pointedly places Armitage’s character front and centre right from the off, with Bilbo just sort of there as well. Jackson just seems to conform to the view that there is more interesting places to go with Thorin as a main character over Bilbo in The Desolation of Smaug.
And Thorn does have a much more interesting journey to go on. I remember noting the flashback scene in An Unexpected Journey, featuring the battle before the gates of Moria, and how I thought there was a subtle sense of shame emanating from Thorin during it, a sign of his fall into greed and darkness. The Desolation of Smaug runs with that idea, as Thorin continues sliding down the slope. He refuses the chance at freedom from Thranduil out of a personal vendetta, he scorns the help of Bard, later connives with the Master of Lake-Town and he shows a growing disregard for his companions. By the time he reaches the mountain, all that seems to be in his head is the Arkenstone, the same sickness that undid his grandfather and that we so pointedly saw him developing in the initial prologue. The opening of this movie shows Thorin seeking his father in the wilds, a more familiar bond than we see from him at the end, as he casts aside Fili and Kili and places others in the company at great risk. The height of it is holding Bilbo at sword point, the pretence of reclaiming a homeland temporarily lost, and who knows what might have happened if Smaug hadn’t shown up, which is the entire point I suppose. Thorin’s journey is one of continuing sickness, which will reach its inevitable zenith in There And Back Again followed by the redemption. I liked the way that Jackson built all of this up, showing the slide slowly, and making sure that there is still enough good and heroic within Thorin so that we do not come to despise him entirely.
While Thorin is well developed throughout the course of The Desolation of Smaug, the rest of Dwarves are largely not, a problem that was evident in An Unexpected Journey and will probably be evident once more in There And Back Again. The fault remains with Tolkien of course, and with the practicality of trying to get effective characterisation for so many characters in the short amount of time that Jackson has to do so. Balin remains the mentor type, trying to guide Thorin in a fatherly way, and only half succeeding. Kili has a whole sub-plot to mess around in, and gets some effective characterisation through it, as the young heartthrob who secretly has some grander desires. Dwalin is the angry one. Bombur is the fat one. Gloin is Gimli’s father (a nice moment with Legolas where that is revealed). You know the rest.
Jackson gives everyone lines or something to do, whether it is help fight Smaug or try to save Kili’s life late on, but there is only so much that those kind of things can accomplish. The Dwarves remain mostly blank slates that we, the audience, have to confer traits on through visuals and inferred meaning in dialogue, but even with that they aren’t really characters. Jackson picked the few he could do something with, and that’s all we can really ask for.
Perhaps he could have given them a bit more characterisation, but instead Jackson decided to plump for something of his own invention. Enter Tauriel, perhaps the most debated aspect of anything to do with Tolkien’s work since somebody first asked “Do Balrogs have wings?”
I think I must have written on this topic before, but it bears noting again: the sheer misogyny aimed at the character and the actress who plays her from elements of the “fandom” has been utterly despicable, a sexist attitude dressed up as bleating over canonical purism. That some would be content for New Line Cinema/MGM/Warner Brothers/Wingnut to pour hundreds of millions into this trilogy and to not have a single female character – like the book, which was as sexist as its times – and worse, that some actively encouraged this, is a sign of deeper problems within the fan community of fantasy. Or at least, one part of its male half. It’s 2013. Tauriel existence is not only a requirement, but a positive one, an improvement on the sausage fest source material. Get over it.
Tauriel is a fine invention. She allows for a deeper look at the politics and leadership of the Woodland Realm. She’s somebody for Legolas to play off of. She’s a female character who can more than hold her own in a fight. She’s no Katniss Everdeen of course, but she has goals, emotions, effective characterisation, even if, alas, it was all tied up in one of worst parts of the production.
Having a love plot is one thing. I think we all expected some form of romance angle with Legolas, but this is only briefly seen really. Instead, Jackson made the bold and almost admirable attempt to pair her up with Kili.
It took me a while to formulate exactly why this sub-plot doesn’t really work out in my mind. It isn’t just the inherent problems of a literal Dwarf inspiring love from an Elf. You’d get over that, it’s just a visual issue (and Jackson is at pains to only rarely have them standing next to each other).
No, its other things. Firstly, it’s the disappointment of having a female character created, only to see her swept up into a generic and maudlin love story. You fear that this was Tauriel’s only reason for being, which would be a disgraceful indictment of how Hollywood see’s women, that is all too common really. That I was so happy to see Tauriel created is juxtaposed with my sadness at the way she was used, in a love triangle that is only mildly better then Stephanie Meyer-level dross.
Secondly, it’s just the way that it was carried out. I suppose there is something endearing in the way that Tauriel is captivated by Kili, a response perhaps to the isolationist stance of her King. Kili might just be something new, provoking an intense fascination, which in high fantasy terms means love at first sight. Still, Tauriel seems to fall for Kili remarkably fast, after one brief monologue about a blood moon rising. Her choosing to stay behind and save his life was one thing (and featured a nice visual call-back to Arwen saving Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring) but you wonder how much further this can go in There And Back Again before it becomes utterly unwatchable. We all know that Kili is for the chopping block of course, and it’s possible that Jackson might decide to let Smaug, rather than Orcs, do the necessaries. I would guess that Tauriel might share the same fate, a doomed romance angle that could hardly be considered an improvement. The cliffhanger-ish way that this plot was left, with Tauriel silent over Kili’s feverish inquiry about whether “she could have ever loved me?” was also eye-rolling territory at his grandest. It’s telling that Tauriel’s best scene was with Thranduil, rather than Legolas or Kili.
I mean, there is nothing wrong with conveying attraction in a universe like this, the kind that can transcend species. But the love plot of The Desolation of Smaug just does not have enough going for it to be good cinema, and as a result feels shunted in, an unnecessary addition and an example of bad changes from the source material. Let Tauriel exist without the need to be involved with somebody. Keep in Legolas’ mild infatuation with her (something that was really only inferred by Thranduil remember) if you want, but she can have a role in this story outside of romance. Need to give her a reason to follow the Dwarves? She hates the King’s isolationism and maybe Kili is the one to convince her that the quest is worth doing. The attachment between the two doesn’t have to be deeper than that. You could argue that maybe this is the state of affairs, but she goes after the company only after hearing that Kili – and Kili alone – is in mortal danger.
Before I go into a more chronological discussion, I do want to mention the padding issue, perhaps the most consistent criticism that Jackson has ever gotten for any movie. The Desolation of Smaug is full of action and adventure, but does also have padded out sections. But it far less of a problem than many would make it out to be. The scene outside the hidden door, the final confrontation with Smaug, the combat in Lake-Town, the tomb of the Ringwraiths, all scenes that could have been cut down without really losing much. But it isn’t so much an issue of Jackson padding this new trilogy out, as him simply over-indulging himself. After all, if he wanted to make three two hour or 90 minutes movies, he could, and they’d still probably be watchable. No, this isn’t padding for time, its padding for love of the material, which can be just as negative if I’m being honest. But if you love that material, and love Jackson’s ability to adapt and film that material, then it won’t be an issue.
We begin with the first change, an adaptation from the depths of The Lord of the Rings’ appendices. Bree hasn’t changed much since The Fellowship of the Ring, still a dank, miserable looking place, at odds with the way it was described by Tolkien, but cinematic in its way. Thorin trudges through the rain, sodden, covered in mud, walking against the elements and the townsfolk, every bit the lost prince of a homeless people, the same Dwarf we saw hammering steel so furiously at the end of An Unexpected Journey ’s prologue. The Prancing Pony is still the rather dark inn from Jackson’s imagination, and the tension is racked up significantly as Thorin is nearly set upon by two dangerous looking men (one of whom, in pure Jackson fashion, is credited as “Bill Ferny Sr”).
Enter Gandalf, and a “chance meeting” that is not so lucky really. This opening serves as a great way to introduce us to the pre-quest Thorin, not so weighed down by this desire for revenge, gold and the Arkenstone, and to remind us that he is far from the “King Under The Mountain”. But there is also Gandalf, and his very cynical but legitimate, reason for supporting the endeavour: a dragon that could be put to fearful ends. The alteration to the Arkenstone’s inherent nature – now a sort of object that the armies of the Dwarves are sworn to follow the bearer of – allows the justification for a “burglar” to be brought along, one of the strange little plot holes of Tolkien’s works, insofar as it is never made exactly clear as to why Gandalf pushes Bilbo so hard to go on the adventure.
Skip forward a few months, and we’re in the direct aftermath of An Unexpected Journey. The chased nature of the company is set right from the off, as Azog’s minions hunt them relentlessly, while a gigantic bear creature also prowls nearby. The mood is dark, a turnabout from the positive way that An Unexpected Journey ended, a crashing dose of reality.
The answer to this problem is to seek shelter with Beorn the skin changer (pronounced “Bay-orn” here). Our first mad dash across the landscape comes, the Dwarves caught between two deadly menaces. While readers of The Hobbit will know how this works out, I was still struck by how quickly this whole premise was put together, and how the bear is made to be a real and credible threat, something huge and impressive, sure to make a mark at the Battle of Five Armies. Some humour outsides – Bombur outrunning the rest, and the company failing to notice a latch for the door – manage to alleviate some of the unrelenting tension that has been clear thus far.
The richly designed interior of Beorn’s home, and the distinctly noticeable way that the man himself is portrayed serves to really mark out this adaptation of “Queer Lodgings”, which is good since so little time is spent there. Beorn gets the chance to do a bit of monologuing, Jackson giving him a more personal motivation against Azog that is sure to mark out their inevitable clash in There And Back Again. I liked this scene, how Beorn was shown to be barely protagonistic towards the Dwarves, but still came off as someone intriguing and powerful.
And so to Mirkwood. Bilbo and Gandalf share one of the better interactions in the film outside its borders, as Bilbo wimps out of telling him about the Ring. Then it’s into the forest. In truth, I think this is one of the sections where I would have appreciated some purism. Jackson creates a meandering path through the forest, as opposed to the monotonously straight one of the books. The straight one added to the required sense of enclosing desperation, something that The Desolation of Smaug cannot achieve in the few minutes that the Dwarves spend walking around Mirkwood before disaster strikes. There are some neat visual choices, but Mirkwood doesn’t look good compared to the Fangorn sections of The Two Towers, too fake, not enough substance. We need the Dwarves to tell us that the place feels stuffy, we don’t get the feeling ourselves, not for all the weird camera angles and funny imagery.
Still, one of the best parts of “Flies and Spiders” is nailed really well, when Bilbo climbs out of the forest for a brief look around, Freeman easily capturing the intense joy that the Ring-bearer feels at such a moment, suddenly separated from the gloomy undergrowth, and then in a sea of sunlight, lush green and butterflies, a wonderful moment, brilliantly presented without words.
And then the spiders come. Foreshadowed effectively in An Unexpected Journey, the spiders are horrific looking creatures, every bit as fearful as Shelob was in The Return of the King. That Sam/Shelob fight remains one of the benchmarks of greenscreen acting, but The Desolation of Smaug goes close to matching at times. The visceral fear that comes whenever one of them shrieks is very palpable, and the decision to retain their spoken sections to a limited extent was a wise one, giving Bilbo one of his more badass moments as he gives Sting its name.
But where the book version of “Flies and Spiders” was supposed to be another moment where Bilbo saved everybody, The Desolation of Smaug takes an alternate view. Bilbo saves the Dwarves alright, but then it turns into a gruesome hack and slash battle between the company and the arachnids, full of really squirm-inducing moments of carnage, and that’s before the Elves turn up. A really brilliant scene occurs off to the side as Bilbo gives in to an uncharacteristic rage to save the Ring – “Mine” – and then finds himself overwhelmed by the clear effect that the thing is already having on him, a wonderful way to show how the Ring operates.
Queue Legolas and pals, who quickly enter the fray and eliminate the bad guys with consummate ease. Tauriel and Kili get their start here, and it’s probably the best part, as he begs for a knife only for the “she-elf” to do all the work herself, the sort of “meet cute” that I can get behind.
It’s as good a place as any to discuss the Gandalf sub-plot in its entirety, considering that it takes up no more than 10 to 15 minutes of The Desolation of Smaug running time (against all of the criticism that it’s lengthening the trilogy unduly). Gandalf is on a mission to seek out the Necromancer and confirm his identity, more stuff taken from other Tolkien works (the sequencing is a bit out of order here though).
Of course, the Necromancer is actually Sauron. Rather than try and hype up this revelation for the audience members who aren’t that in-depth with Tolkien (the Necromancer’s identity isn’t even revealed at all in The Hobbit), it all comes to light fairly fast. Gandalf hunts down the tombs of the Ringwraiths (for some reason) discovering them largely destroyed. A jailbreak of sorts, but the scene is so bizarre as to be distracting. Its purpose isn’t exactly clear, and why the Ringwraiths would be buried in such a place is very confusing. This is padding, a scene designed to just be a reference to The Lord of the Rings and to allow us to see a bit more of Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast, who is thankfully reining in the insanity this time around.
From there, it’s on to Dol Guldur, with only a brief stopover in angstville for Gandalf, forced to abandon his friends to “save the world”. Gandalf’s approach to and entrance of Dol Guldur is appropriately epic, as is the fear surrounding his every move there. The reveal of Sauron is, as mentioned, fairly lame, and I’m genuinely confused as to why Jackson gave this away so early. The final confrontation is a magic battle between Gandalf and Sauron, one he is fated to lose. That battle looked and felt very strange, not at all effective, culminating in this bizarre effect of zooming in, over and over again, on Sauron’s eyeball. They should have just left it at the armour clad figure appearing really. This sub-plot is given a cliff-hanger of its own, Gandalf imprisoned (again) while an army marches on the Lonely Mountain, but so much of it felt so sub-par that any sort of tension is inevitably killed. One of the weak links of The Desolation of Smaug.
Gandalf’s plot also manages to suck in Azog, he who was one of my main reasons for enjoying An Unexpected Journey , even giving his role my “Nuts And Gum, Together At Last” award for 2012. I was looking forward to seeing him as the recurring villain I hoped he would be, but instead he takes a backseat, recalled to Dol Guldur early and forced onto the subs bench in favour of Bolg, an Orc that is well designed but lacks much of Azog’s presence and menace. Jackson, thankfully, drops the canonical state of affairs where Bolg is Azog’s son, a plot point that would raise too many questions in a movie universe that shows their kind being bred from slime.
Azog does get some increased back story in the form of Beorn’s earlier monologue about his slaving days, something to just keep him ticking over in time for the Battle of Five Armies, but I still wish that it was Azog in Lake-Town fighting Legolas (and sort of winning) instead of the blank slate Bolg. Azog worked because of his promise as a trilogy spanning bad guy whose comeuppance would be welcomed and cathartic for the audience, but the character has taken a back step in The Desolation of Smaug I feel.
Anyway, back with the main plot, and the company is imprisoned in the Woodland Realm. Lee Pace’s Thranduil is here, another character to get just a bit of a makeover from the source material. He was always arrogant and a bit of a jerk, but Jackson just gives him a bit more of a motivation. He kow-towed to the Dwarves before, giving them tribute for whatever reason, and that action hurt. He’s already got his own back to a degree, by refusing to help them when Smaug attacked, but now he sees the chance to turn the knife just a bit more, offering help and appearing magnanimous when he is anything but. Thorin, ever one to hold a grudge, refuses the deal, which is perfectly in character for him.
Of course, Thranduil also has a bit of an even darker side, shown all too briefly when some sort of glamour surrounding his face disappears, revealing wounds caused by a dragon of some kind, an odd departure from the book. This allows the danger of dragons to be shown vividly, but also impress upon us some of the factors surrounding Thranduil’s isolationism, something hammered home repeatedly throughout these sections as the King refuses to countenance getting involved in anything outside of his own borders. In a world that seems like a dark shade of Lothlorien, Thranduil serves as a quasi-antagonist, faced on the opposite side of characterisation by Legolas and Tauriel. The King wants to exert control over them and their lives, but ultimately fails too.
The love plot also has its proper beginning here, but I’ve pretty much said my piece on that score. It has some half-decent dialogue to it, but is far too weighted down by other issues to be effective, and could have been so much more.
This portion of the “Barrels out of Bond” chapter adaptation goes fast, with the Thranduil/Thorin conversation being the centrepiece. Bilbo’s time in the Elven halls is rapidly reduced, the one remnant of the weeks he spent there in the book being a ringside seat to the Thranduil/Tauriel scene where the King coldly orders her not to lead Legolas on. From there, it’s on to the meat and bones.
The actual escape plan that Bilbo concocts in the book would be fairly unfilmable if it was taken from a purist viewpoint. It would unceasingly dull, and make a mockery of the Elvish characters, to see the Dwarves eke their way out of the Woodland Realm in slow moving barrels. So instead, Jackson left next to nothing on the table, in an extended action sequence that is easily one of the craziest he has ever put to film. Elves, Dwarves, Orcs and one hobbit engage in a running battle with each other, arrows fly, knife slice and moment after moment flies by in spectacular fashion. Serious drama in the form of Kili’s leg wound, comedy in the form of Bombur’s rollabout, this sequence manages to cram a lot in with all of the acrobatics and bloodshed. It was loud and dumb on occasion, but seriously entertaining, a thrill ride that so much production work went into, in return for a brilliant final product, an adaptation of the chapter that turned it from one of the worst parts of the original story to one of the most captivating moments of this filmed trilogy.
Legolas and Tauriel really get to let loose here, bringing up another point. It’s fine to have Orlando Bloom’s character in The Desolation of Smaug. It makes sense, even if there is more than a whiff of appealing to the fangirls about it. I just wish that Legolas was given something like a journey to go on. He plays second fiddle to Tauriel throughout as a character, little more than a menacing enforcer for his father, with the larger interventionist/isolationism thing in The Desolation of Smaug coming from the other two Elvish characters.
No, here, Legolas is just the Terminator, with a body count that probably Dwarfs anybody else in every Tolkien related movie made. Any scene where he takes the bow or the knives out is going to be one where he just rips Orcs to pieces, in increasingly elaborate or show-offy ways. That’s fine I guess, but Legolas is too notable a character from the source material to be used in such a fashion. His inclusion merited a deeper arc, something akin to the Thranduil/Tauriel dynamic. Having an infatuation with Tauriel might be that arc, but we didn’t see much of it here, though I suppose that we might in There And Back Again. In The Desolation of Smaug, Legolas exists to slaughter Orcs, and that’s really not enough.
Having escaped the Woodland Realm the company bumps into the next key personality: Bard the “Bargeman”, soon to be Bowman. It was so, so important to get Bard right in this production if Jackson was going to stick to the original slayer of Smaug, and thankfully The Desolation of Smaug does a sterling job with him. Bard was a nobody in The Hobbit, introduced only a few pages before he committed his famous deed, like Tolkien didn’t really care about the fate of the dragon that much.
Jackson clearly does, and so Bard is crafted into becoming something more than the morose blank he was in The Hobbit. Here, he’s a smuggle, a resistance fighter, the opposition to the Master, and a widowed family man, with an innate sense of right and wrong, and a care for all the people around him that is sorely lacking in others, almost the opposite of Thranduil in many respects, though his mirror image is more obviously the Master of Lake-Town. The tie between himself and Girion is more closely observed, with a direct link between what his ancestor failed to do and what Bard will end up doing.
That little flashback also introduces us to the “Dwarven windlance”, a large crossbow that is, in best Chekov’s Gun tradition, inevitably going to be the device that takes Smaug out. I always thought that the dragon being killed with a normal bow was ridiculous to an extent, so I like this change. You can already picture Bard climbing that structure, Lake-Town in flames around him, with just one shot available with which to redeem his ancestor and fell the beast. That’s epic filmmaking, and it will be something to see.
Bard is a man who is being pulled in numerous directions and going nowhere, caught in a political combat with the Master, caught up in helping Thorin and then Kili, caught in trying to defend his family from the looming destruction. I thought that this Bard, Jackson’s Bard, was the stand-out alteration of The Desolation of Smaug, a general improvement on something that the source material struggled with.
The introductory sequence with Bard also provides one of the best moments of the production, when the company is moved to silence upon their first look of the Lonely Mountain up close, the face of it looming out of the fog, invoking feelings of grandeur and glory. It’s important, in a story that is trying to big up the epicness of reclaiming Erebor, to include moments like this, so the audience feels just a glimmer of what the Dwarves are feeling as they come back to “the halls of our fathers”.
And that’s before I get into the general plot with Lake-Town itself, a very effective, yet simple, set-up. The Master and his odious servants are tyrants, enriching themselves while “the people” go hungry and suffer. Bard is the champion of the people, and though Lake-Town is not engulfed in revolution just yet, you get the feeling that it won’t be long.
The Master is a repulsive enough creature, but he still feels realer than his written counterpart, someone with ambitions, goals, motivations, who loves to hog the limelight while being secretly influenced and controlled by Grima Wormtongue 2.0. In a location that was brilliantly designed, Bard and the Master are two very human characters, and all the better for it, making their impact on The Desolation of Smaug all the larger. The Master and “Alfrid” are cunning people, who turn the mob against Bard in absence of all sense when it comes to the risk involved, in a brilliant scene where Thorin gives them the opportunity, leaving Bard bereft of help. But, because he’s a good man, he still helps Kili when he’s at deaths door.
That confrontation is masterfully handled, as Thorin, perhaps with some of Balin’s criticism over his handling of Thranduil ringing in his ears, decides to play a bit of the politician himself, mirroring the grand announcements from the same character in the book without some of the overblownness. That Thorin can lie and provoke so easily is in keeping with the way that his character is going, promising the sun, the moon and the stars to all and sundry if it will get him one step close to his true desire. Balin’s delight at seeing Thorin’s suddenly charitable nature is something that is sure to get an emotional pay-off in There And Back Again, when Thorin turns on his former “allies” completely.
We’re heading straight towards the final act now, as the company prepares to head to the mountain. But then a split occurs, with four of the Dwarves winding up left behind, some voluntarily, most not so much. I understand the reasons for this totally. It allows the Dwarves to be involved in the Lake-Town fight scenes later in The Desolation of Smaug, and gives them a role to play in the Smaug assault in There And Back Again. It also shows Thorin’s hardness a little bit, as he basically dumps Kili out of the quest, and then has to just watch while Fili bows out as a consequence (the question I wanted to ask, was why Thorin allowed Kili to walk all the way to the boat in the first place?). The deaths of all three of those characters are incoming, so this scene just set-up a bit of tension between all of them.
So, now nine Dwarves and one hobbit make the approach to the mountain. The following scenes were some of my least enjoyable, as the drama over just finding the door is strung out to an unbelievable extent. The Dwarves give up on the door very quickly, and it’s left to Bilbo to sort it all out. At this point in the movie, I’m at the edge of my seat just to finally see Smaug, and this slow drama outside the mountain is just a delay in my eyes. I suppose it makes Bilbo the hero one more time, but it wasn’t really necessary. Better was Thorin’s reaction to being back inside the Lonely Mountain, similar to the earlier fogbound sight of the same place.
And so, to “Inside Information”, the beating heart of the entire trilogy, an iconic fantasy moment between a hobbit and a dragon. And Jackson, Freeman and Cumberbatch nail it completely. The dragon is immense and impressive, the dialogue is sparkling, the sequence astounding.
It has everything that made the chapter so great. Bilbo’s wonder and fear at the dragon, the slowly waking serpent racking up the tension, and then the conversation. Bilbo’s early attempts to outfox the dragon, Smaug’s bitter and sarcastic rejoinders, the way that the dragon gets inside Bilbo’s head and makes him squirm.
There are alterations. Smaug is aware of the Ring, and soon Bilbo isn’t wearing it at all, allowing a more personable conversation. Moreover, Bilbo’s two literary trips to the golden horde are merged into one, a smart choice, and the whole thing then takes the form of Bilbo literally swimming in Smaug’s golden mountain as he tries to get away.
This scene does feel different to much of the production, probably because it’s taking the most out of the source material in terms of dialogue, something Jackson actually does with surprising rarity. As such, the back and forth has a more old-timey feel, but loses nothing in the transition from book to film. It’s a still a terrifying, majestic moment between the two, and everything that is required to make Smaug the villainous wyrm that he has to be.
If I had one complaint about this scene, it would be just that a small amount of necessary set-up was not implemented. In The Hobbit we has Bilbo’s internal monologue to explain why he gives Smaug so many false names and speaks in riddles, but in The Desolation of Smaug nothing of the sort occurs to explain Bilbo’s dialogue choices or why they are significant. Smaug is shown as a creature with a very potent voice, which almost has a physical effect on Bilbo, and has some kind of inferred mental power, with his zeroing in on the word “precious” when it comes to the Ring, all well portrayed.
Back in Lake-Town, another part of the finale is taking place, as Bolg attacks Bard’s home before Legolas and Tauriel intervene. It was at this point that I began to feel a little less enamoured by the action scenes, which were becoming repetitive fast, just Legolas slicing Orcs apart when he wasn’t stuffing them full of arrows. The Bolg/Legolas combat was interesting enough, if only because it was good to see that the Elf prince isn’t unassailable.
The other part, where Tauriel saves Kili’s life, had all of the problems I’ve previously discussed with the love-plot, and it might have been better if the Dwarves were taking a more active role in their defence other than leaving it all up to the Elves. Still, at least the stuff in Lake-Town has been left on a suitable cliff-hanger, with the town about to feel the wrath of the dragon with a lot of people we care about still there.
Apart from all that, it’s just the invented finale within the Lonely Mountain. Having recently seen another middle chapter in a trilogy that featured no climax and suffered for it, I can appreciate why this entire sequence was created. It allows The Desolation of Smaug to have an actual finale that appears to be a climax, but more importantly than any of that, it gives the Dwarves an active part in trying to kill Smaug. The Dwarves of the book were just sitting around doing nothing when the dragon fell, so it makes sense for them to have a bit more of a presence in that regard in the filmed adaptation. At least they actively try to kill off the dragon.
From Thorin holding Bilbo at swordpoint to the final, slightly baffling, attempt at burying Smaug in molten gold, it’s an entertaining sequence, visually and with the chorography. From what we know of Thror, it probably makes sense for him to have had the set up for a gigantic solid gold statue, and I loved how Smaug was temporarily mesmerised by it. Most of the rest of the sequence was fine, if just a bit overblown with the imagery, which called back to the escape from Goblin Town in terms of jumping around large chasms and grasping onto chains. But everyone is involved and it allows a chance for Smaug to be shown off as the deadly threat he is supposed to be.
Well, sort of. Part of me feels it would have been better if Jackson had taken a further leap and actually killed off a few of the Dwarves with the dragon. Smaug comes out of the sequence looking a little incompetent really, failing over and over to even injure any of the little creatures trying to kill him, and the emotional stakes would have been driven way, way up if just one of the Dwarves, few of which are that essential to the story, were burned in dragonfire.
But that whole finale is still full of fine moments. Discovering the last remains of the Lonely Mountain’s population was one, echoing the “lobby” of the Mines of Moria, and provoking an exhilarating response from Thorin, who refuses to die in such a manner. Smaug smashing the iron barrier down showcases his physical strength. Bilbo in the “chamber of Kings” diving to avoid the gigantic tapestry, illustrating his tiny size in the surroundings. And the gold statue itself, an over the top device of course, but not one that I found particularly bothersome. Seeing Smaug literally shake its effects off was a bit lame, but at least The Desolation of Smaug brought us a climax for its middle chapter.
A climax and a cliff-hanger. I had thought that The Desolation of Smaug would finish with Smaug’s fall over Lake-Town, but instead that will be one hell of an opening in There And Back Again. As a cliff-hanger, I thought it was perfect. The movie does end very suddenly, but not in a jarring or unsatisfying way. We had a climax and the promise of more drama to come. Smaug’s power has been shown in immense fashion, and Bilbo’s inner turmoil at his part in the disaster about to engulf Lake-Town is sure to be a major inspiration for some of his characters actions in There And Back Again (even more than they were in the book, where such guilt was little explored). And that is enough. Jackson has crafted an ending that actually is an ending even though this is part two of three, and has left the audience begging for more, already booking their seats for December 17th, 2014.
That was a lot of words on just the story/plot wasn’t it? To conclude on that section, I loved the plot and story of The Desolation of Smaug, a bit less than I loved An Unexpected Journey to be sure, but still enough to say that, as a Tolkien fan and a movie fan, I felt very satisfied by the time the credits rolled. It’s an excellent cinematic adaptation of a very unique story, and that’s probably the highest praise I can give it.
And so, moving on to the acting front. Martin Freeman returns once again as the titular hobbit. But while Freeman performs the nuances and vagaries of Bilbo to the standard he set in An Unexpected Journey, he still suffers due to the reduced focus on him. He gets no more than a few scenes in which to really show off any kind of acting talent. Those scenes are great, but Bilbo’s thunder is largely being stolen by others in The Desolation of Smaug.
With the lack of a real character journey to go on, Freeman is sort of tethered to those moments. He embodies pure joy as his Bilbo gets a glimpse above the Mirkwood gloom. He gives Bilbo a really memorable look of growing horror in “Flies and Spiders” when he realises the effect that the Ring is already having on him. He’s decent outside the hidden door, but that performance suffers due to the inherent problems with the larger sequence.
And he’s magnificent when having his showdown with Smaug. Freeman does brilliantly with the sort of green screen interactions that are so easy to mess up, never making Bilbo’s conversation with the dragon seem unnatural or stinted. His fear is real, his desperation to keep Smaug talking is very real, as is his selling of the kind of “enormity” that Smaug represents. The audience can see just how big and scary looking Smaug is, but we need Freeman there, in the room with the dragon, really letting us know how we are supposed to be feeling towards this giant thing.
Aside from all that, Freeman is generally good, bringing such life to Bilbo, in a way that makes him funny, warm-hearted and relatable, a little guy in over his head in the wide, wide world, and worried that the experience is going to engulf him and his friends. Freeman masterfully approaches the showdown with Thorin within the Lonely Mountain, and his horrified guilt of the last line is expertly delivered. Freeman is as good as he ever was as Bilbo, you just wish that he had been given a bit more time to show that off. In There And Back Again, he should get loads, not least the break with Thorin.
Speaking of Oakenshield, Richard Armitage continues the good work he’s been doing with Thorin. Thorin is a character that works to Armitage’s strengths. He isn’t the most emotive of people, except when it comes to things like anger and suspicion, the negative stuff that comes to encapsulate much of what Thorin is. In scenes with Lee Pace and with Smaug later on, Armitage does his best work, letting some of that pent up frustration and aggression out. Ironically, his best acting moment might be in one of the worst scenes, as his character, heartbroken, asks “What did we miss?” when it appears that the hidden door will remain hidden.
At least Armitage is making Thorin a bit more of his own as we go on. In An Unexpected Journey he was way too close to Aragorn in a lot of mannerisms and plot, but with the continuing negativity in The Desolation of Smaug, Thorin starts to look a bit more unique, a darker prince than Aragorn was, one straining to hold in all of the secret greed that is slowly driving him mad. Armitage gives us all that, and gives it well, but I would hazard that his strongest moments will be in There And Back Again.
Ian McKellan remains, as ever, the epitome of Gandalf the Grey. There are really no more superlatives to be said, it’s all been noted before. He is Gandalf, with all of the hidden warmth, the outward sarcasm and sheer effectiveness as the most famous wizard since Merlin. I especially enjoyed his few brief interactions with the less capable Radagast, and that excellent little scene outside Mirkwood with Bilbo, the sudden curiosity on his face as he asks “What did you find?”, changing into a slightly mischievous declaration when the answer is “My courage”. “Good….you’ll need it.”
Benedict Cumberbatch, rapidly become a Hollywood darling, takes to the word of voice acting in two roles here. He does simply stunning work as Smaug. Smaug was always going to be English, but I had reservations about the electronically modified speech from the trailers. Thankfully, when seen in full all of those fears vanish. With the right bit of alteration to make his voice deeper, more throbbing to the ear, Cumberbatch injects all of the life necessary into the dragon, with his bitterness, his probing insults, and his innate sense of superiority. Cumberbatch makes Smaug one of the great villains of fantasy, bringing the dialogue of Tolkien into the realm of cinema with the same professionalism and brilliance that he has done for Sherlock Holmes. “I am fire. I am death”. Thanks to the power of Cumberbatch’s voice, with that posh twang that makes you sit up and take notice, such lines increase the effect that Smaug has. Smaug needed to be done right, it was one of the few all-out movie killers if he wasn’t. He has been done right.
And he’s doing twice as much work with his role as the Necromancer/Sauron. It’s only a few brief lines in the “Black Speech” but he embodies the kind of voice that Sauron should have: harsh, clipped, disembodied, but unquestionably evil. Cumberbatch has a talent for VA, and maybe we’ll see more of that from him in the future.
As stated, the Dwarves mostly lack any time for effective characterisation, and that also means that the actors playing them also have little time to actually show off. Ken Stott is probably the most impressive of “the rest” as Balin, the old man trying to be a surrogate father to Thorin and guide him in the right direction. He has some touching moments as he tries to set Thorin on the correct path, with only partial success. Aidan Turner is locked into his romance plot as Kili, and he acts it just fine, it just happens to be middling material. Dean O’Gorman has one brief scene as Fili with which to show that he actually can act – “My place is with my brother…” – and Graham McTavish gets the same as the angry, distrustful Dwalin. Poor James Nesbitt as Bofor, after having one of the best moments in 2012 cinema in An Unexpected Journey, has only one scene of any real import here, which is a shame. Every other Dwarf struggles for anything, with two of them having no lines at all.
It’s hard to make time for every actor to shine, damn near impossible. But I can’t help but think that it could have been done after two full movies. There are some fine actors in that company, who are reduced to little more than walking props.
Orlando Bloom is the same Elf he was before I suppose, always the least acting intensive part of The Lord of the Rings. His Legolas has a constant seriousness about him, mixed with the odd moment of levity, which makes him strangely appealing as a character. He’s upstaged by all around him here though, and falls back to being little more than a fantasy action hero with all of the blade slinging.
Evangeline Lilly does just fine as Tauriel. No other member of the cast is under as much pressure as she is from the core fanbase, and I think she puts in a decent shift, even with the mediocre material she was given. She’s a powerful, confident female character, who gives off that sense of fascination with Kili very well, she just falls down when it comes to conveying any sort of genuine attraction, and she’s lapsing big time by the final combat in Lake-Town. She forms one half of a decent back and forth with Bloom, and the same could be said for the one scene between herself and Pace. She’s a cog in the Woodland machine trying to break out and be more of an individual, and she portrays that well enough.
I really love Lee Pace as Thranduil. Just as with his part in Lincoln, he manages to steal the show during his time on screen with a relatively minor role. His Elven King is a strange, creepy sort, whose social interactions seem stunted thanks to his isolation from the outside world. He carries scars, both physical and mental, from past encounters with dragons, and his gait and mannerisms are those of someone damaged, and trying unsuccessfully to hide it. Still, he brings a terrific amount of barely concealed menace and spitefulness to the role, a man who feels aggrieved by Thorin’s very existence but isn’t above using him for his own ends.
Luke Evans is a real stand-out as Bard. With all of the expansion on him, they needed someone good to actually play the role, and I think Evans could not have been bettered. He captured that tired, beaten down bargeman persona very well, a man who wants to look after his family, but cannot ignore the problems around him. When he confronts Thorin about his plans to march on the Lonely Mountain, we can feel the anger, the desperation in his voice, just as we feel it when he reveals that last black arrow in his possession. As a foil to the Master, he works even better, almost the polar opposite, one half of an intriguing sub-plot within this little fiefdom of man. Bard is one of the only true heroes of The Hobbit, but he still has darkness and anger within him, and I think that Evans captures all of that to the necessary degree.
Facing him is Stephen Fry’s Master, who could hardly be better cast. Fry plays someone who is positively Dickensian in his disdain for those around him, who gorges on plenty while his people starve, the King of a dunghill who despairs at having to actually work for the position. Fry has played this kind of character before of course, not least General Melchett, the tyrant misusing his power for his own personal gratification. The role is small, but Fry embodies the same antagonist from the book who is destroyed by his own insatiable greed, a grubbier kind than that of Thorin, with every sneer, gout-induced limp and showmanship-like playing to the crowd. Beside him, in the Grima role of wicked advisor, is Ryan Gage and the two have a really wonderful chemistry – again, not unlike that of Tim McInnerny’s Captain Darling from Blackadder Goes Forth.
Mikael Persbrandt is brief but effective as Beorn, showcasing some of the restrained power in the human form, along with a really palpable sadness when it comes to his backstory. Sylvester McCoy is reduced from the Jar Jar Binks-like character he was in An Unexpected Journey to someone who is just a bit more serious in his scenes with McKellan. John Bell is decent as Bard’s son, Bain. Manu Bennet does the same good voice work for Azog that he did in An Unexpected Journey. Cate Blanchet has a needless appearance in a brief bit of telepathy with Gandalf, but reprises Galadriel with all of the grace and poise that she has done before.
Overall, a really fantastic ensemble, just many of them don’t have the opportunity to show what they can do to the full extent, sometimes justified, sometimes not. The new additions nearly all do very well, supplementing the familiar faces nicely, and making this another well acted jaunt through Tolkien’s world.
Onto the visual side of things. Out of sheer necessity, I must state what we all could have predicted: The Desolation of Smaug is a wonderful looking movie. I saw both a 2D and 3D screening, and while 3D offered very little to the overall experience, I still found it to be another visually mesmerising production from a team of people have been at this for well over a decade by now, since the first trilogy was in pre-production.
The vistas are majestic, the CGI is wonderful and the sets are sublime. Middle-Earth has been created on film yet again, to an absolute tee, like the encroaching darkness of the edge of Mirkwood, the subtle elegance of the Woodland Realm, the cold dankness of Lake-Town and the shining marvel of Erebor. The Desolation of Smaug is, once again, nearly everything that you could wish for.
Camera wise, it’s another fine effort, the right angle found for just about every scene, whether it is emotionally driven stuff like outside the hidden door, a nice medium set-up to fit all in, kept for most of Bilbo and Smaug, or the more up-close and personal stuff, like within the Woodland Realm prison or Bard’s home in Lake-Town. There are a few odd camera choices, not least the few shots during “Barrels out of Bond” that were done using a Go-Pro device, which was more jarring than it was immersive.
There are so many other things to note that I might as well do it chronologically. Beorn has a wonderful design, a long ponytail and a gruff facial hair adding immeasurably to his powerful aura, while his home was another great bit of simple set-work, something as basic as an overly large milk jug drawing the eye in a really hood way. The illusionary parts of Mirkwood are done in a similarly clever style, with Bilbo imagining he is walking backwards and a few Dutch angles thrown in for good measure.
The spiders all look great, a slight redux on Shelob, but still terrifyingly real and close. I liked the webs that were created for them, which Bilbo memorably twangs before the spiders themselves actually show up. Other than that though, it must be said that the Mirkwood set didn’t really feel enclosed or claustrophobic enough to mirror the terrifying place from the book that was nothing but darkness off the path, and seemed at times to be just a haphazard copy of Fangorn more than anything else.
The Woodland Realm was nicely presented, echoing Lothlorien while very much remaining its own location, with an emphasis on stone over trees. The radiance of the Elves really comes through, and I really liked the effects of Thranduil’s scarred face. Legolas has been given a little bit of a makeover, with paler, colder eyes, that sort of fits his pre-The Lord of the Rings character just a little bit. I didn’t really need to see him riding a spider down a hill though.
There has been some great CGI work done on the Orcs of The Desolation of Smaug. Azog looks as unique and imposing as he always did, but has been matched by the pure demonic look given to Bolg, featuring wounds apparently filled in with steel. While the character might not have been that compelling, at least he looked very memorable. Dol Guldur still has that same awesomeness about it, the cracked stone interweaved with straight, pointed metal, with a little bit more of an Isengard vibe to it here. The Necromancer/Sauron looked just fine for the most part, that flickering shadow becoming a blazing eye, but was let down by our final, bizarre glimpse of him.
Perhaps the most notable and impressive part of the visual side of things was Lake-Town though. The wider CGI shots of the place were good enough, but the actual set-building was amazing. A sort of frozen Venice, Jackson’s team makes this wooden town and imbues it with all sorts of intricacies and little details, with a very real sense of life and sombreness. Lake-Town never felt wrong, or unrealistic or unlikely to exist, whether it was the boats that people travel to and fro on, the businesses or the constant propaganda images of the Master everywhere.
It felt like a miserable, run-down place, but it still felt like a place, populated by people who felt like they belonged there in their clothes, look and speech. Even the Master’s abode was just a slightly bigger hovel .Emerging out of the fog like a ghost of times past, Lake-Town absolutely makes an impression, making its inevitable destruction all the more captivating. Compare with the work done with District 12 in Catching Fire, an area I cared noting for, or for its off-screen destruction. I care about Lake-Town, and the people in it.
There are still a few complaints to talk about, but mostly of a minor variety. The blurring effect that hurt parts of An Unexpected Journey has been fixed for the most part, but there was still a few panning shots, especially in Dol Guldur, that had me straining rather than appreciating. Beorn’s giant bees looked pretty fake and slapdash, as did sections of Mirkwood, as mentioned.
I suppose that I should note that I did feel that the brief few shots of African characters in Lake-Town was a bit odd. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with them being there, just the way that the camera focused in on them felt a bit off to me, like Jackson was trying to say something very deliberate to the audience, since Tolkien gets cries of ignoring all but the white race plenty of times.
Aside from the towering presence of the mountain itself, the inside of Erebor is a treat for the eyes, as Bilbo stumbles through an utterly vast horde of treasure in search of the Arkenstone. All that gold and jewellery looked wonderful, and was really important in getting a feel for how much was on the line, how big the fall had been for the Dwarves. Not so much for the liquid gold later on of course, which was one of the worse visual effects, aside from the glittering cyclone formed when Smaug shrugged it all off.
Then there is Smaug himself. I, like many others, expressed some reservations about how Smaug looked in that early trailer. I wish now that whoever was in charge of marketing had pulled that early image, as seeing Smaug for the first time here would have been much more impressive.
He looks very good, as good as any of the creations WETA has come up with over the past decade, a living, fire-breathing entity. His lips move in a crazily natural fashion, eliminating the fears that his speech would seem unnatural with that head. His size is large and impressive without being overblown, and he moves with the sort of ponderousness on land that is juxtaposed with his sleekness in the air. His fire breath looks just sublime, with a nice choice to actually show it building up in his belly before it is unleashed on whoever he is aiming it at. The voice makes it all of course, but the actual CGI in him is of the very highest quality as well. He’s undoubtedly the finest on-screen creation of a dragon in film history.
Within Erebor there was also a brief scene where the company happen upon some Dwarf corpses. Taking their cue from places like Pompeii, I found myself perversely entranced by the work that had gone into making them as realistic as possible for people who had died suffocating. It’s a minor part of the production, but it deserves to be noted.
The fight/action scenes – and there are so, so many of them – are all of a generally good standard, simply straying into monotony as we reach the conclusion and have to suffer through another Orc genocide perpetrated by Legolas. Jackson knows how to shoot fantasy action, and while he gives into his worst instincts on occasion, most of the time he’s able to come up with the goods.
The combat with the spiders is fun and interesting, a sort of mad-cap frenzy of chopping and pulling as every party gets swept up into this sudden fray. That’s all just preamble for “Barrels out of Bond” though, a sequence that is one of the crowning jewels of the whole trilogy, a tension-filled dash down a river, with Orcs and Elves firing and fighting around and about the whole time. Similar in many respects to some of the action scenes in The Adventures of Tintin, it was a real rollercoaster of a sequence. Only slightly let down by some of the more elongated elements – like Bombur’s barrel rolling moment – most of it is a real delight to watch, and a great way to imbue some much needed drama into one of the dullest portions of the original story.
In Lake-Town late on, the fighting between the Elves and Bolg’s Orcs is decent on its own merits, but suffers due to its repetitiveness. It’s nice to take advantage of the excellent set work for this sort of thing alright, but it could have been reduced to a single scene, rather than including Legolas’ chase of Bolg himself.
The big finale in the mountain is entertaining, a fun ride around the halls of Erebor with fire on your tail, but like with Lake-Town, could have been reeled in just a bit without losing much. There’s only so much of seeing Dwarves leaping onto chains over chasms you can watch before you begin to think that the production team was running out of ideas. Still, with Smaug looking as good as he does, and with the uniqueness of the way that the Dwarves approach the problem of trying to kill him, I still thought it was a really good action sequence to round things off.
If I had any other complaint to make about the action portions, it might be the overabundance of “spectacle” shots, that is the lingering moments when he have to see characters do some sort of awesome swordplay or something especially “cool”. Legolas especially gets a lot of this, with plenty of bow moments or fancy decapitations. In fact, The Desolation of Smaug has a load of decapitations, like it’s the only way to kill Orcs for sure or something. Maybe a little less style and spectacle, and a bit more substance would go a long way when it comes to There And Back Again. There is also the very underwhelming magic battle between Gandalf and Sauron, visualised very drably and poorly, something that should have been more Voldemort/Dumbledore in The Order of the Phoenix than what we actually got.
A few more brief words on the visual side of things, to note the excellent prop and costuming work being done, which almost seems superfluous to mention at this point. WETA has never had any shortage in inspiration or talent on those scores, and every place and location was inhabited by people who looked like they grew up and belonged there, just as all those places looked like they were designed with a keen eye for the right detail.
In line with the cinematography, it’s also apropos of me to mention Andy Serkis, whose second unit directing has been much praised in other quarters. While Gollum might not have any more part to play in this trilogy, the man behind him certainly has.
Script wise, it is the same excellent effort from Jackson, Boyens and Walsh. It always surprises me, how little wordplay they take directly from Tolkien’s work, always chopping, changing, altering or paraphrasing until they come up with something that is just a little bit better to hear rather than read coming out of a characters mouth, and all without losing anything of what makes the characters of Tolkien, most of them anyway, great. From Bilbo to Bard, they have their own unique voice that suits them down to the ground.
The script has its share of action clichés, its generic moments, but it never approaches anything that is akin to irritating or disappointing. Most of the time, the wordplay is effective for the characters that it represents, allowing positive expression, emoting and, where applicable, the means for characters to go on their required journeys.
Some bad moments do abound, one above others. The love plot dialogue is a little strained and unrefined, doing little to ward off the inherent uncomfortableness of the premise, and no amount of blood moon description is really going to make me buy into that relationship.
But the script works so well in so many other moments that it is almost beyond reproach. A few select examples will suffice. Early on, there’s is Beorn’s imminently threatening monologue about his distaste for Dwarves, driving deep into the heart of that race’s ultimate hubris and ability to create their own problems, brilliantly matched with Beorn holding a mouse in his hand as a strange sort of tension builder.
Bilbo’s best line in the entire production was just one word: “Mine”, said after he reclaims the Ring from a Mirkwood creature he just slaughtered for the privilege, and that results in a moving moment of horror coming upon his face. A short while later, Thranduil and Thorin are given some brilliant back and forth, when the “King Under The Mountain” flies off into a curse-filled rage, matched by the Elf’s cold rejoinder that “I’m patient. I can wait.”
Later, in Lake-Town, Bard and Thorin have an excellent confrontation where Bard outlines his objections to the Dwarven scheme in a much more brash fashion than Beorn – “He cannot see beyond his own desire!”, ably matched by Thorin’s retort that he and he alone has “the only right” to enter the mountain, said low and with a dark, unyielding confidence.
As Bilbo descends into the mountain’s fiery core, Thorin considers abandoning him, not willing to risk the company for the “life of one burglar”, a snide dismissive way of putting it. Balin responds with an answer from experience far outweighing Thorin: “His name is Bilbo”, a exhortation for Thorin to remember the reason he embraced the hobbit so fervently at the end of An Unexpected Journey .
I’ve already said my piece on the Bilbo/Smaug conversation. It’s a wonderfully captured bit of dialogue, with Cumberbatch especially capturing all of the necessary malevolence for the dragon, and Bilbo’s witty retorts in his “lovely titles”. From the very first moment – “I smell you…I feel your air”- it’s a wonderful piece of cinema. When Smaug wants to undermine, he does wonderfully, telling Bilbo that the gold is far from Thorin’s power, “as if it were his to give.” When he wants to be cunning, the shining mischievousness comes out: “I am almost tempted to let you take it (the Arkenstone) …just so you can watch it drive him mad”. When he wants to be powerful, the roar comes: “My armour is iron, my teeth swords, my claws spears, my wings are a hurricane!”
The last sequence also has my favourite line in the production. As Thorin takes renewed strength and purpose from the sight of his dead ancestors, found lying where they fell “clawing for breath”, he rejects Balin’s plan to simply hide out for as long as they can. No, he gives a defiant call to arms that sets up the finale very nicely: “If this is to end in fire, then we shall all burn together.”
Lastly, I want to mention the really good work that went into the languages of The Desolation of Smaug. English (common), Black Speech, Elvish, Dwarvish, it all comes out sounding unique to each race. Even the skittering of the spiders that turns into English was captured well. It’s an understated, but important aspect of any fantasy production. In line with the overall script quality, The Desolation of Smaug does a good job here.
Howard Shore’s work remains as impeccable as ever, with as much verve as it has an epic scope. There is no literally no bad music in The Desolation of Smaug, whether it is the return of old themes or the inclusion of new ones. It’s great to hear the Mordor/Sauron themes again in a new context, just as it is to hear the fresher themes, the choral work for the Elves, the deep drums for the Orcs.
Coming to mind especially are things like the Lake-Town theme, “Thrice Welcome”, with its reverberating boom and violin strings invoking a sense of pride mixed with debilitating poverty and monotony, but every race and place has its correct themes that imbue them with even more greatness and epicness, as well as the wonderful action music like “My Armour Is Iron” for the Smaug battle, which uses Chinese instruments. Also worthy of mention is “Beyond the Forest”, which as a love theme for Tauriel and Kili, might be the single best thing about that aspect of the movie, with its subtle pipes mixing with the ever rising chorus and violins.
Special note has to be given to Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire”, the credits song, that actually betters “Song Of The Lonely Mountain” from An Unexpected Journey. Starting off with a throaty exhortation for the Lonely Mountain to watch over “Durin’s sons” and a soft repetition of Thorin’s earlier battle-cry, it continues into a subtle folk melody with a repeated cry of “I see fire” with “blood in the breeze” before transforming late on into an epic recount of Smaug’s assault and the Dwarven memories of flames that “burn auburn on the mountain side”. Epic, yet accessible, it’s the perfect addition to an already wonderful score, and you should all go and listen to it immediately.
So, to themes, and a movie like The Desolation of Smaug, based on source material like this, is bound to have a lot to talk about on that score. The first, and most obvious, is a mixture of obsession and greed. This is most obviously seen in Thorin of course, who obsesses about the Arkenstone, and seems set on a course of doing anything, saying anything and sacrificing anybody to get what he wants. But he’s not the only one.
There’s the Master of course, who exploits the poor and run down of Lake-Town for his own fulfilment. There’s Thranduil, who wants what once he gave to Thror, and probably has an eye for some of the gold within Erebor for himself. And there’s Bilbo Baggins himself, who is already finding himself falling prey to the Ring’s influence, killing without restraint to keep it by his side.
The Desolation of Smaug paints greed as a terribly ugly thing, the sort of soul-killing attachment that leads to sickness, from which, as the elder Bilbo said in An Unexpected Journey “dark things shall follow”. The very epitome and representation of this sort of thing is Smaug himself, the gigantic, deadly monster, who steals the gigantic pile of treasure and then is content to do nothing other than sit on it for decades, wallowing in his obsession. That obsession is almost his undoing near the conclusion of The Desolation of Smaug, and with him, we also see the furious anger and violence that comes with a overly-attached attraction to gold.
It is still in Thorin that it is seen most clearly of course, and his arc is a tragic one, a road to hell paved with the very best of intentions. Getting the Dwarves back to their homeland – leading his people out of Egypt so to speak – is a noble endeavour, one that Thorin seemed hand-picked to do. But it is all so much bluster and face saving, as Thorin has nothing but that bright, shining jewel in his head, a jewel that will destroy him from the inside out if he ever actually got his hands on it, much as the One Ring will eventually destroy the ones who bear it. Thorin might not be Gollum, but he shares much of the same traits, from easily aroused anger to a predilection for deceit and self-delusion. Greed and obsession is at the heart of all of this.
Moreover, the better characters in the story – Bard, Tauriel, Beorn, Gandalf – are the ones who, the most of anybody, are not so attached to earthly wealth and power. They have other, more positive things to latch on to and fight for over gold or political placement, and they are seen as more morally upright people for it.
There is also a theme of spreading darkness throughout The Desolation of Smaug, of a growing decay across Middle-Earth, one that is going to end in a critical deciding moment, one way or another. Just as Smaug’s desolation spreads from the Lonely Mountain, so does this larger darkness. Beorn’s people were one plentiful and prosperous, now they are one. The lands east of the Misty Mountains were once peaceful, now they are overrun with Orcs. The Greenwood was once a place of beauty and safety, now it is Mirkwood, full of danger and darkness. The Elves were once friendly, now they are prickly and isolationist. Lake-Town once flourished, now it is at a low ebb. This demonic sort of darkness is exemplified in Azog’s brutal put-down to Gandalf that his master is all-powerful, as are his armies: “He is everywhere. We are legion”, a line with clear Biblical connotations.
It is from Dol Guldur that much of this comes from of course, as well as a cascading series of events since Smaug took the Lonely Mountain. One of Tolkien’s recurring ideas was always that of “the long defeat”, or the inevitable scaling back of the old order in the face of a new one, combated by a darker chaos. The Desolation of Smaug is full of this, where the old powers of the Dwarves and Elves are either homeless or actively looking to not engage in any great matters, while it is left to men to actively try and out an end to the dragon (when the time comes).
Some try and combat this darkness, but for The Desolation of Smaug it seems to be the kind of thing that can only be delayed instead of defeated. Even given a routine adaptation in There And Back Again, the defeat of darkness at the Battle of Five Armies and the death of Smaug will only be a longer delay, as Sauron flees back to Mordor and moves his attention elsewhere. It will take the actions of good men and women, forsaking larger greeds, to stem the tide, if only for a non-literal moment.
There is also a theme of courage throughout The Desolation of Smaug. Bilbo, rather surreptitiously, tells Gandalf that he found his back in the Misty Mountains, and while he’s lying by omission when he says this, the overall statement is quite true. Bilbo found his courage in An Unexpected Journey, and needs to keep using it again and again in The Desolation of Smaug, with giant spiders, with an escape plan and with the confrontation with Smaug. His is a small, hidden kind of courage, but no less effective in a pinch. Bilbo is the kind of person who is willing to just wonder into the lair of a fire-breathing dragon, and to do so because he believes that the higher cause is right. People like Bard and Balin exemplify this as well, as the Bargeman risks life and limb to get one over on the Master, and Balin convinces Thorin to head into the mountain to try and save Bilbo.
Bilbo’s courage is that of the little man, and the underdog. “It never ceases to amaze me, the courage of hobbits” says Balin as Bilbo willingly walks into the lion’s den, and if all of the Middle-Earth bibliography has one giant theme, it is the courage and power of the little guys, and the impact that they can have on events much larger than themselves.
That is all tied up in a greater theme of the greater good. Thorin is very up front about his belief that no one member of the company is more important than his larger goal. Bilbo, very memorably, states that the only reason he has come along is to help the Dwarves reclaim their homeland, because it’s the right thing to do, over personal concerns. Bard councils Thorin not to go on with his journey, because his actions will have larger consequences that he is refusing to contemplate. Gandalf forgoes his part in the quest to try and get a handle on the escalating Dol Guldur situation.
It’s all a continuing theme, of characters being forced to choose between short term gratification, of a kind, and longer term stability, a choice that requires no small degree of courage to make, one way or the other. In the end, The Desolation of Smaug actually sits a bit on the fence when it comes to which is the better choice, with Thorin’s foray into the mountain leading to the destruction of Lake-Town, while Gandalf’s decision to abandon his part in the Erebor mission leads him to a task of much more desperate importance in Dol Guldur.
There is an obvious and crucial theme of isolation apparent throughout The Desolation of Smaug. Seen most obviously with the Woodland Realm, and tying into the idea of the long defeat, The Desolation of Smaug shows the Elves as withdrawing from the larger issues of the world, with Thranduil uncaring about the sources of the problems currently plaguing his Kingdom. Many of his subjects disagree, and this leads to some internal dissension with his orders. His isolationism is matched by people like the Master, who want nothing to change and for everything to be kept tightly under control – no outside elements, no political reform, no interference with the way that things are run.
This isolationism is what the dark powers of the world thrive on. Sauron builds a new army from the unheeded spot of Dol Guldur, taking advantage of the willingness of the important players to consider the “Necromancer” to be nothing more than a human sorcerer. Smaug sacks and takes Erebor, and because the ties of allies are so easily broken, is able to stay there without any assault on his person for decades. The spreading darkness that is engulfing Middle-Earth finds a major source of its power in the form of this isolation, which The Desolation of Smaug builds up as an unquestionably bad thing, that must be shattered if the darkness is to be defeated.
There is also a recurring motif and theme of prophecy. The Dwarven company follows words set down for them in decades past, following an old rhyme that needs careful deciphering. They put all their faith in it, a faith that is all too easily shattered when things go wrong, only to be built back up again by Bilbo. Meanwhile, the people of Lake-Town are all too easily caught up in an old prophecy about the King Under The Mountain whose return will herald a golden age, with only Bard dissenting. This happy thought is soon to turn to fire and death. Prophecy is a tricky thing in The Desolation of Smaug, something that inspires hope only to disappoint. The message might be to not put all of your hopes and dreams in such things, lest they leave you stranded at a critical moment.
Lastly, I want to mention an odd, but evident theme of nationalism, or maybe a strange sort of patriotism, at least in a cynical sense. Lake-Town is the site of a major political battle between rival factions, one endorsing stability and the old way, the other endorsing revolution. It’s a fight for the soul of Lake-Town, and one that the Master has all but won by the conclusion of The Desolation of Smaug, though it will do him little good in the end.
Meanwhile, in the Woodland Realm, Thranduil maintains his rule over Mirkwood by making sure that few outside influences are allowed to corrupt it, and that any deviation from this policy is met with a stern rebuke. In this way, it almost approaches a degree of exceptionalism, as Thranduil refuses to sully his hands with the lesser problems of the lesser folk around his country, making the Woodland Realm the one and only priority, the only place worth considering.
And then there are the Dwarves themselves, who value their nation above all else, and are willing to make great sacrifices just for the chance of getting it back, even to the extent of confronting a fire-breathing monstrosity.
All of these places showcase a love of country, albeit in a few different ways and in different circumstances. This is not something that Jackson has ever really explored in any great depth in his movies before, but I was struck with how it cropped up again and again in The Desolation of Smaug, as political machinations began to take a more central role. It may, perhaps, by a call-out to the more “mature” brand of fantasy, like Game of Thrones, that has been on the rise more and more recently, and it is something that I believe fits in with sections of the story nicely.
So, what comes next? With my original prediction that Smaug would meet his end in the finale of The Desolation of Smaug up in smoke, it seems clearer just how There And Back Again is going to go. It will be a movie based around three set-pieces. The first will be the battle over Lake-Town, ending with Bard downing the dragon with the windlance and his black arrow, perhaps with any number of Fili, Kili, Tauriel or the Master buying it in the process.
The second will be the White Council teaming up to take Sauron down, with Radagast bringing the cavalry to save Gandalf and then defeating the Necromancer after his armies have left, a real mid-point pace changer. I imagine this section might also include something with Thorin’s father, Thrain, after his mention in the prologue of The Desolation of Smaug (Azog also mentions some kind of encounter with him at one point in An Unexpected Journey). With that done, Gandalf will be free to head back to the Lonely Mountain, where the clouds will be gathering. Legolas will have an unfinished grudge match with Bolg to look after, not to mention the annoyance of his father once they bump into each other again.
From there, it will be the road to Five Armies and all of the associated drama. Legolas will get Bolg, Beorn will show up to take down Azog – maybe after Azog finally gets his own revenge against Thorin – and hopefully Bilbo will get a better battle finale than getting knocked out with a rock to the head. And from there, we’ll go back again, with probably plenty of nods to The Lord of the Rings along the way. That all sounds fine and dandy to me, and I have little doubt that Jackson will be up for the challenge of crafting another memorable finale.
Because he’s Peter Jackson. Much of the flak sent his way is justified, and a lot of it is not. But what cannot be denied is the sheer love that this man has for Middle-Earth, more than any other filmmaker could possibly have. It’s evident in every tiny detail of this world that he has managed, through some miracle, to bring to the big screen five times now. The sheer workload, passion and dedication that Jackson has had to show and endure is beyond belief really, as can be said for most of the team that has stayed next to him throughout that time. And it’s all there again in The Desolation of Smaug, another example of the way the man just brings the A-game, the energy, the verve, the desire. You can offer all the other possible directors you want, even Del Toro, but you’ll never get me to think that somebody else would be a better choice than this guy, who not only adores the source material, but is willing to change it to make it better for the visual format.
The girl who rounded on me in the cinema last Friday was dead wrong. She weeps for canon, out of a mistaken belief that it is all that there can ever be, and that nothing could ever improve upon it, a basic and naive viewpoint that most will grow out of in time. No, she should not weep.
She should celebrate. Because the books are never going to go away or change, they’ll still be there to read and to be enjoyed forever and a day. But now we have another way of enjoying that story, and we have it from a man who knows how to make entertaining cinema, who understands the main points of what Tolkien wrote, and is able to retain them within the greater alterations needed to make the entire experience filmable. And that is something worthy of great praise. Jackson is the master of alteration and adaptation. I do not weep at that, and neither should anybody else. Who would want a soulless page for page rendering of The Hobbit? Go pick up an audiobook and imagine it in your head if that is what you really want. But if you want to see that story told in a different way, in a format that requires the right amount of chopping and changing, from an ambitious visionary who loves the story and wants to see it encapsulated on screen, then you should enjoy The Desolation of Smaug, and its fellow entries in this saga.
And so, here we are, at the conclusion of this gigantic pile of words. I can only say now that while The Desolation of Smaug is not my favourite film of the year, it is still a very, very good movie, one that I thoroughly enjoyed, and that any reasonable fan of Tolkien’s works should also enjoy. It features a great story that is well told, fantastic performances from a very capable ensemble, the usually mesmerising visual work, an engaging script, powerful music and is just another amazing effort from this production team, that have been knocking them out of the park for over ten years now. While some elements are not so great or outright distasteful, they can only do little to bring down the overall quality of the movie, to a point that is just a bit below that of An Unexpected Journey.
This is Tolkien on film, nearly as good as it is ever going to be. And it is very good. My expectations for There And Back Again are as high as they have ever been, and I have little doubt that they will be met, going on the track record of this director and his cast and crew. Now a long wait for a black arrow in flight, a gleaming jewel stolen away and the coming of eagles. Roll on 17/12/14.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).