SPOILER WARNING: I’ll try to keep it limited, but I’m going to give a few things away here. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, come back later. If you don’t care, read on.
We’re just back from seeing THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. I have to say up front that I loved it, and by that I mean far more than the last one. The middle movie in the trilogy takes up literally moments after the ending of the last film, with the Dwarves over the Misty Mountains, still on the run from the heretical Orcish “Azog the Defiler”, the antagonist from the previous film. Immediately, we see Bilbo is out scouting the way ahead to keep a jump ahead of the party’s Orc pursuers. The viewer can start to see the changes that have come over Bilbo since earlier in this story– he’s become more clever and handier in a scrape than most of his Dwarven compatriots, though he doesn’t let them know it. Part of this is the effect of the Ring; having no idea what is in his possession, you can see his bafflement and apprehension about the growing hold it has upon him.
The early Beorn sequence was outstanding. Beorn’s a bit of a mystery in the book– he doesn’t get a lot of print. He benefits from his few lines of exposition in the film. Not sure of whom the actor is who played Beorn, but he does a very credible job– he’s all quiet, unspoken menace. “I hate Dwarves. But I hate Orcs more, so I will help you”. Gandalf takes a side trip at this point, which I seem to recall he did in the book as well. We get to see his journey to a “an unnamed place” with Radagast, where apparently the Nazgul were entombed, long ago (though not in the novels). It’s clear that the Nazgul have broken out, although they are not formed yet, from the implication in the movie. Gandalf spends quite some time in a certain epic confrontation at Dol Goldur– not to reveal any more about that except: yes, we do see two Maia fighting each other. The story jumps around a bit as the movie’s three plot threats diverge right about that point. There’s the Gandalf-Radagast Dol Goldur plot, the Tauriel-Legolas-Thranduil plot, the Dwarves Journey, with a few extras tied in like Kili’s innocent flirtation with the elf maiden Tauriel (made up for the movie). I won’t give away the ending, which diverges from the book in particulars, but closes with the same result– Bilbo staring out of the Lonely Mountain and asking “Oh no! What have we DONE?”
Action was evident in this movie. It was action, action all the time, to be sure, but I feel that Jackson took great care to include a lot of storytelling and plot in this movie as well, so it’s not all sped-up CGI. As I’ve said above, Bilbo starts to shine as a real hero of this story. Jackson’s enduring theme throughout the Lord of the Rings films has been that the simple everyday courage of simple people being the true goodness that drives great evil away. Whether it’s stout-hearted Sam staggering the last mile up Mount Doom with Frodo carried on his back, or the ingenuity and courage of Bilbo getting his friends out of trouble time and time again (often for no thanks whatsoever), it’s clearly Hobbits that embody this strength in Jackson’s eyes. In these jaded times, that’s a message I found very heart warming. In contrast to Bilbo, Gandalf does not seem nearly as sure of himself, and at parts of the movie, seems downright terrified. I liked that– he walks into a very dangerous situation during the film and it’s clear to him that he doesn’t feel like he has much of a chance. His face shows this. Contrast that to the supremely confident White Wizard of the Return of the King, and he doesn’t seem nearly as sure as himself. The Dwarves are a mixed lot– many are still caricatures as they were in the first film, and my favorite dwarf, Bofur (played by James Nesbitt) lacked the depth he had in the first film. Richard Armitage does his best to play Thorin with a certain fiery dignity but this effect is often spoiled when he is placed in scenes with human or elf sized actors– since the Dwarves Fili, Kili, and Thorin just look like shrunken men, without the facial features of the other more classic dwarves in the party. With that said, I found myself still liking the film version of the dwarves over the book– they had overall more depth, character and humor than the book’s simple list of names. I particularly liked Jackson’s characterization of the party as perhaps NOT the biggest bunch of dwarven badasses in Middle Earth. It is strongly hinted that these guys were (for the most part) NOT warriors, but artisans, blacksmiths, bankers and scribes. Dwarves have jobs, too. Not all of them are doughty warriors. In a nice nod to that idea, the ending of the movie has the dwarves (those of them that make it to the Lonely Mountain) deliver a stunning check to Smaug, using a very dwarven method of doing so. It was unrealistic as hell, from a physics standpoint, but I liked that it was truly a DWARVEN approach to the problem of a rampaging dragon. In contrast with the Dwarves the Elves seem like a gang of ass-hats. Legolas shows up, included to appeal to the teen girl fan base, I suspect, but it makes logical sense given that they were passing through his land. 70 years must have softened him a bit because he’s kind of intolerant and reactionary in this movie– and more than willing to pick a fight with Dwarves. Legolas comes off as a veritable Tallyrand compared to his own dad, Thranduil, however. The Elven king is characterized (by Lee Pace, doing his very best Edgar Winter impression) as being crafty, proud, greedy and suspiciously xenophobic. Erm.. isn’t that how DWARVES are supposed to be? I guess I’m used to Elves being standoffish and dignified, and just a little hoity toity. Thranduil comes off as not a little bit of an insufferable jerk. The shining example, and most likable elf by far, was the fictional female elf, Tauriel. I liked her inclusion. If you’re going to add interaction with the Woodland Realm beyond what’s in the book, why NOT have Legolas and fictional characters added in? It makes sense for the time and place. I greatly enjoyed the depiction of Esgaroth (Lake-Town) and the humans that lived there — they had depth and character and weren’t cyphers. Stephen Fry was up to his usual standard as the suspicious Master of Lake Town with his Grima-like right hand man. This is an example of taking something that is implied with an economy of words by Tolkien and running with it full tilt for a touchdown by Jackson. The whole tension of the Master being suspicious of Bard (the Smuggler) and the politics of the little town as a masterful touch. Besides, Bard is a truly likable and good character, in every sense of the word. Lastly, we come to Smaug. Depicted in CGI and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, the scenes between Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and Cumberbatch’s Smaug were one of the film’s highlights. And a reunion, of sorts, for the two SHERLOCK actors. I’m not sure if Bilbo ever takes the Ring off when he is talking to Smaug in the book, but he does in the film– because it’s clear that he already is feeling the torment of using it. Bilbo’s stammering terror during his confrontation was everything I imagined it to be, and Cumberbatch’s oily, evil portrayal of Smaug is right on the money.
There were a lot of divergent plot elements, and as I’ve said many times in the past, I take these with a grain of salt. Peter Jackson is a master craftsman in the visual storytelling field, and he is charged with making a movie of a book, not a book of a book. I knew things would be different. So that never bothers me unduly– it certainly didn’t in Lord of the Rings. In Desolation, there were some elements that diverged more than a little here and there. At one point, four of the dwarves are left behind to take care of a wounded Kili in Esgaroth while the rest of the party forges ahead. That seemed only to be added to A) continue the odd flirtation between Kili the Dwarf and Tauriel the female Elf, and B) possibly set us up to have the Elves and Dwarves help defend Lake-town in THERE AND BACK AGAIN. Ehhh.. that was a little thin. The rest? I wish Beorn had more screen time. I wish there were more little Easter Eggs that connect the films, like the bit about Legolas and Gimli (sort of). I find the Orc Leader Azog a little tiresome– he’s there to drive the plot along and the motivation for his undying hatred isn’t very clear. The connection between Sauron and the Orcs seems tacked on. The connection between Smaug and Sauron is just there for convenience– there was little or no indications that either party cared about the other one whit in the novels. Most of these are quibbles, but they do illustrate the great weakness of this trilogy. Jackson had to cut all three movies down to make them workable for a theatrical release when he was filming the Lord of the Rings. With the Hobbit, we find him padding every film with fictional material or greatly expanded plot items from the appendices. So there’s some silly moments presented to make the movie drive along, such as Azog being alive after Azunulzibar or the flirtation between an Elf and a Dwarf.
My overall assessment is that the Desolation of Smaug was great fun. Not as good as the Lord of the Rings trilogy but still a very entertaining movie I’ll see again. Highly recommended.