The second instalment in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug stars Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitrage, Evangeline Lily, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, and Benedict Cumberbatch. I had the opportunity to see the film earlier this week at a screening held by Warner Brothers Canada. As a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work and Peter Jackson’s ability to bring Middle Earth to life, I was completely captivated by The Desolation of Smaug, and found many significant improvements in the pacing, character development, and storyline compared to the film’s predecessor, An Unexpected Journey. That being said, there are also a few issues with some of these elements that may be difficult to overcome while watching the film.
Please note: light spoilers ahead.
The company’s journey picks up right after the battle with Azog and the orcs, as they continue on with their quest to the Lonely Mountain. With time moving against them, they press on to try and make it to the mountain before Durin’s Day so that they can access an ancient secret passageway into the mountain to confront Smaug, but are faced with numerous challenges from eerie creatures, suspicious elves, and shady humans. Meanwhile, a darkness is re-emerging in Middle-Earth that causes Gandalf to separate from the dwarves’ quest, pushing him into an investigation from which he may not return.
What I Loved
The pacing in An Unexpected Journey was a major problem, which was rooted in an extended introduction that really made it feel like the plot was being spread out way too thin. This time, Jackson wastes no time in moving the story along, especially since there is a promise of a confrontation with Smaug, pushing the company straight into a series of conflicts that brings them to new places with (some) new faces.
One of Jackson’s achievements in these films and in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is how well he uses a combination of the New Zealand landscape and visual effects to make these fan favourite settings so real. The highlight of these new settings is Mirkwood, an ancient forest and realm of the woodland elves. It’s mystical, creepy, and so functionally different from Rivendell, but it’s the kind of setting that you wish you could physically lose yourself in. Here we meet Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), a character created to add a female lead to the storyline, Thranduil (Lee Pace), the elven king of Mirkwood, and his son, Legolas (Orlando Bloom).
These three performances were some of my favourites. As someone who grew up on The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, it was so exciting to see Orlando Bloom return as Legolas in a pretty extended role that did not exist in the source material. I found him to be much more aggressive and harder than how he appeared in Lord of the Rings, which made him fall in line with Lee Pace’s portrayal of Thranduil. Pace really took the reigns on this character and made him intriguing but subtly terrifying, especially during an interrogation scene with an orc. I also loved how assured and skilled Tauriel is in combat, which added a bit more weight behind a character that is central to a potential love triangle.
Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo Baggins is even more endearing this time around. I think he nailed the timid and hesitant aspect to the character in the first film, but I enjoyed how he really transformed Bilbo into this adventurous and clever aid. This was especially noticeable during his confrontation with Smaug, where he finally gets to fulfill his ‘burglar’ role while engaging in this back and forth banter with the dragon. It is by far my favourite scene in the entire movie, not only because of Freeman’s delivery, but also because of how you visually experience Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch.) It’s the penultimate moment that just does not disappoint. It livens up the entire story, especially with an extended action sequence that involves the gold-obsessed dragon slithering around the ancient dwarf halls, vicious and vengeful, which sets up a cliffhanger that will surely bring viewers back for the final instalment, There and Back Again.
It’s moments like these ones that remind you why the core story of The Desolation of Smaug is so good. It is less darker in tone and perhaps less of a compelling tale when compared to The Lord of the Rings, but it’s still this fantastical world of adventure that you cannot help but become immersed in simply because it is fun. This time around, Jackson manages to make these moments of levity less kid-ish, and they merge into a more dramatic tone better. I particularly enjoyed a scene involving barrels, and could not help but picture a ride at an amusement park or a tourist attraction in New Zealand based on that scene. It drew me into the plot as I sat in the theatre wanting to be a part of the adventure in one of those barrels.
What I Didn’t Love
I am split on the inclusion of “The Enemy” subplot. As a fan of this entire mythical world, I love getting to see more of its history realized on the big screen. However, when I think of it in terms of a mechanism to connect this trilogy with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I can only see it as that. As of this film, it does not converge with the dwarves’ story, creating a disjointed feeling between these different storylines. It made me understand the criticism of the first film better, which I think is appropriately described by Bilbo (Ian Holms) at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring: “I feel thin, like butter scrapped over too much bread.”
This makes the idea of the trilogy itself problematic because the core plot, is stretched out more than necessary. I now understand how it affects the narrative, and unfortunately this time around, I found that it affected the pacing too. While I really loved how much the pacing improved in comparison to the last film, I found myself getting antsy by the time I got to the third act, even though that was my favourite part of the whole movie. I think on some level I was hoping for Smaug to be introduced earlier, and by the time we actually get to meet him, I was so exhausted by the rest of the story. The reasons why I felt this are numerous: it could be my impatience, the inclusion of all of those subplots, the beefed up core storyline with all of the new characters, or even just the simple fact that the scenes which featured Smaug were so good that they deserved more screen time. Perhaps that is just fangirl wishful thinking.
The Good: I am usually not a fan of 3D movies, but there is one specific scene that involves bees which looks amazing in 3D. I know, it’s a random piece of VFX to point out, but it stood out to me.
The So-So: My preliminary review of this movie was that if you can get over that it is not The Lord of the Rings, then you will really enjoy this sequel. I started reading a lot of criticisms against this point and I am now finding that I am a little unsure of my position as well. It’s hard to forget that trilogy when there are so many reminders and references to it popping up throughout The Hobbit films. If you take them on a more superficial level, then you will love the idea of these two film worlds converging. If you look at it in terms of narrative and flow, you will find it laden with issues, like the ones that I mentioned in the previous section.
I did not really speak much about the scenes with “The Enemy”/ Necromancer/Sauron outside of their contribution to the overall story, but it was interesting to see how he began to rebuild in Middle-Earth. That being said, I think providing this history detracts from the elusiveness of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, who we did not really know much about outside of the fact that he is the antagonist with ties and spies across Middle-Earth. Somehow this simplification worked for The Lord of the Rings but if we look at all six of these movies as a whole series, I am unsure as to how his story will affect the viewing experience of The Lord of the Rings. That will be determined once There and Back Again is released next year.
Whether or not you were a fan of An Unexpected Journey, you will likely find many reasons to enjoy The Desolation of Smaug. Although the issues with pacing and subplots have resurfaced in different ways, it is still a vast improvement over the first film. The inclusion of new settings and characters are less drawn out, more organic and assist the pacing and development of the plot, leading to a worthwhile third act that will bring viewers back for the trilogy’s conclusion. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is out in theatres now.