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Film Review: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug (2013; Directed by Peter Jackson)

Even as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy inaugurated a new era of CGI-heavy fantastical blockbusters in Hollywood, it could still be said to stand apart from what followed, distinctly above them. The films were, for those on their wavelength at least, special. Their blend of grand moral sincerity and imaginative bravado was considerable. Most importantly, they were not merely conjured by movie magicians but felt into onscreen being. Just as J.R.R. Tolkien gave his Middle Earth a measure of lived-in reality by building it from the bones of language up, his encyclopedic knowledge of the history and lineage of words suggesting characters, relationships and plot points, Jackson’s Middle Earth was conceived and created from the production design up and out. Appearances of different cultures and locations suggested the emotional affect; indeed, the imaginative depth and breadth of the production constructed and deepened that affect.

A similar method was pursued for The Hobbit prequel trilogy as Jackson and his team have returned to their conception of Middle Earth a decade after the original films. Despite the many attractive qualities of opening installment An Unexpected Journey and its white-knuckle thrill-ride of a sequel The Desolation of Smaug, something is falling short, and I’m settling on it being in this very department. I don’t mean, precisely, that the imagined realms of The Hobbit movies are not “faithful” to Tolkien’s imagined realms. That term and the prudish, near-marital convention of moral loyalty that it implies has no use in any discussion that I want any part of on the given subject.

The point I mean to make is that The Lord of the Rings films, for all of their not unradical departures from the canonical text (no Tom Bombadil, Elves at Helm’s Deep, Arwen subbing in for Glorfindel, etc.), demonstrated an imaginative depth that delved deep into the same culturally-rich creative deposits that Tolkien likewise mined for his literary material. Look at the Art Nouveau sinuousness of the Elves, the squared geometry of the Dwarves, the Italianate white stone of Gondor, or Rohan, seemingly excavated directly from the Anglo-Saxon hoard of Sutton Hoo. These are obvious visual examples, but serve to emphasize the overall affect that those films’ depth of creative design (not merely visual but narrative and emotional and intellectual) produced; even if mass audiences did not pick out the specific aesthetic influences, their compliance was persuaded by the unconscious familiarity of this world’s appearance. Just as Tolkien’s literary trilogy drew upon deep-seated European mythology and language to craft a believable and compelling vision of a mythic proto-Europe, so Jackson’s cinematic trilogy drew on not only Tolkien’s material but also on the history of the art and design of Europe (and beyond) to achieve a similar veneer of imagined reality. The Hobbit films, meanwhile, delve only as far as those Rings films and rarely much deeper. In The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson stood on the shoulders of a giant. In The Hobbit, he pulls a prosthetic recreation of those shoulders out of storage and plants himself on them again, expecting us not to notice the difference.

This preface is not intended to dismiss The Hobbit films in general and The Desolation of Smaug in particular, but to place them in their proper context. Taken in this context, The Desolation of Smaug is a rip-snorting adventure yarn, full of thrills and wonder and yearning and cultural particularity. It’s more unabashedly fun than An Unexpected Journey ever allowed itself to be, and not nearly as beholden to the textual canon of Tolkien. These two defining features are not unrelated, and may even share a certain causality. This is certainly the most liberated and playful Peter Jackson film since before his immersion in Middle Earth, and the liberties he and his collaborators brazenly take with the source material surely must be a major reason for that.

After a tangential depiction of the first meeting between Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) in a familiar inn in rainy, muddy Bree in which the wily wizard convinces a paranoid Thorin to rally his people to take back the inner-mountain realm of Erebor from the terrible dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), we pick up the story where the first film left off. Gandalf, Thorin, twelve other colourful dwarves, and putative burgling hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) are on the run, staying just ahead of a pack of warg-mounted orcs led by the vicious Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), who took the head of Thorin’s dwarf-king grandfather and wouldn’t mind having the grandson’s noggin as well.

They flee their pursuers into a series of episodic locales, all with their specific dangers and peculiar character. They first hightail it into the oversized wooden hall of a “skinchanger” man/bear named Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), who scares off the ninnyhammer orcs by generally being gigantic and ursine. He feeds Bilbo and the dwarves some honey made by bees the size of kiwi fruit and sends them on their way to the forbidding boughs of the great forest of Mirkwood on the back of his ponies. It’s a perfunctory sequence that accomplishes little more than, say, the sojourn with Tom Bombadil in the first book of LOTR excised from the film of The Fellowship of the Ring. But then Beorn is a badass who will surely provide some stupendous orc-mauling in the Battle of Five Armies in the trilogy’s closing film, and he doesn’t sing quite so much, so he still makes the cut.

If I don’t get second breakfast soon, you’re gonna see me get really mad!

Gandalf abruptly dumps the party on the edge of the greenwood, mercurial and unreliable as wizards are wont to be in this world. He’s troubled by portents of doom whispered into his cortex by his ethereal elf-queen telepathic buddy Galadriel (Cate Blanchett, whose voice alone appears in the film), all concerning a gathering dark power mustering in the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur at the south of the forest. Gumshoe Gandalf promises to meet his companions at the Lonely Mountain, but scuttles off to some near-inaccessible tombs high in the northern mountains (nine of them, to be foreshadowingly precise). From thence on to Dol Guldur to investigate the true nature of the frightening figure known as the Necromancer, who gathers and sends forth evil beings of all stripes to do his bidding (and might occasionally appear as a flaming eye; you might get the gist of where this is going).

Fortunately for Thorin’s company, Azog is one of those summoned to his Master’s side. He leaves off their trail for the moment, deputizing his son, another hulking orc named Bolg (Lawrence Makoare, a veteran of hero orcs in the Rings trilogy), to hunt them in his stead. But even the orcs know that Mirkwood ain’t nuttin’ to fuck with, and they seem to hold the wiser counsel, as Bilbo and the dwarves become hopelessly disoriented and lost beneath the bewitched canopies of the sorcery-infected woods. Even as Bilbo climbs above the highest branches to catch a reinvigorating glimpse of an autumn sun and fluttering blue butterflies (a gasp of wonder at last), a more menacing shadow descends below. Jackson is fond of contrasting light and dark in this way, and his digital animators craft a swarm of creeping spiders to cocoon the befuddled dwarves for imminent feasting. But the crafty Bilbo, armed with his magic invisibility ring and biting dagger (christened Sting as it slays the hissing arachnids), manages to free them, even if the Ring begins to suggest its capitalization by driving him to unforeseen anger, violence, and possessiveness.

The company’s liberation segues straight into new captivity, however. A guard detachment of the Wood Elves who dwell in Mirkwood wipe out the remaining spider brood, captained by the hot-blooded ginger-elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the son of the Elf-King, Legolas (Orlando Bloom, looking older and seemingly sporting different contact lenses). But they transfer the dwarves directly into the dungeons of the King, the imperious Thranduil (Lee Pace, cribbing notes from Tom Hiddleston’s Thor and Avengers villain Loki). He nurses a grudge against Thorin for the loss of some coveted white gems to the usurping dragon, and Thorin nurses that grudge right back for Thranduil’s failure to aid the dwarves in the face of the monstrous worm who stole their home. So no royal pardons for these prisoners, much to the consternation of The Dwarf Who Is Smart (Balin, played by Ken Stott).

Mind you, they’re not all Negative Nellies in this woodland realm, which is manifested as a sort of moonlit Pre-Raphaelite Ewok village. There’s some dialogue referring to a potential romantic frisson between Tauriel and the princely Legolas, though you wouldn’t know it from Bloom’s performance, in which the concept of love confuses him as thoroughly as the concept of death did in Fellowship. Even though Tauriel is the rare elf who can match Legolas as an acrobatically creative warrior, she’s Just Not That Into Him either. Indeed, she seems more smitten of The Dwarf Who Smoulders (Kili, played by Aidan Turner), who isn’t too diminutive and stinky for his sort and tells her nice stories about runestones and starlight. Her fondness might even motivate her to defy Thranduil and follow the dwarves beyond her people’s closely-guarded borders.

Are we sure they aren’t out to reclaim their lost home in SPLASH Mountain?

But first the dwarves have to get beyond those borders, or indeed out of their cells in the elven dungeons. Trust clever Bilbo for that, skulking about with the Ring on and devising a plan to escape the sylvan halls in empty wine barrels. A glorious bit of vintage Freeman physical humour takes them through a trap door and into a fast-flowing river, whereupon the showcase action setpiece of the film begins before steadfastly refusing to end. A thrilling flume-ride running battle rushes downriver, the dwarves hacking at Bolg’s pursuing orc battalion while Legolas and Tauriel balletically slice up the evil buggers with blades and arrows.

The multi-dimensional fight through Goblintown in An Unexpected Journey had some of this sequence’s gleeful abandon, but the barrel chase is pure, giddy, geeky Action Jackson at its finest. It’s really almost too much of a good thing, and stretches on nearly too long with a few too many gags that are simultaneously cute and grotesque (one orc is pinned unsettlingly to an overhanging log like a collected insect; Legolas surfs on a dead body and then stands on the heads of the barrel-riding dwarves while creating a few more corpses). But its delightful peak is fantastic, featuring the barrel-bound Dwarf Who Is Obese (Bombur, played by Stephen Hunter) flipping out of the rapids and bouncing over rocks, logs, and orcs before bursting through the wooden frame into a dervish of spinning blades.

Despite an injury to formidable warrior Kili (He Took an Arrow in the Knee), Bilbo and the dwarves give the orcs and the elves the slip, and pay off a shrewd bargeman named Bard (Luke Evans) to spirit them away to whatever safety he can provide. What he provides is shelter in his home in Lake-town, the nearest surviving settlement to the Lonely Mountain after the coming of Smaug and maybe The Desolation of Smaug‘s most compelling location. True to the design heritage of Jackson’s production team, Esgaroth simultaneously invokes the snow-bound wooden architecture of pre-imperial Russia (also suggested by the onion-dome-like helmets and fur-trimmed uniforms of the city guard) and the grim, canal-hugging traders of the Late Medieval Netherlandish lands.

The Master of Lake-town (Stephen Fry) broods in his Late Renaissance chambers, a corrupt but wily political animal who sees in the promise of a returned King Under the Mountain a rich opportunity to stave off civil unrest (or worse, elections) and consolidate his local power. The noble Bard, descendant of a Lord of Dale whose city in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain fell to ruin when he failed to slay the marauding dragon with a stylized black super-arrow, fears dire consequences for his town if Thorin awakens Smaug, but shelters and helps the dwarves until they are embraced and outfitted by the authorities for the final leg of their quest and he is arrested for sedition.

Oh dear, I’ve just touched some dragon poop.

Bilbo, Thorin and about half of the dwarves (a few stay behind with the wounded Kili in Lake-town, where Bolg’s marauders expect to find them) continue to Erebor at last, gain ingress to their great halls by dint of more riddle-solving hobbit cleverness, and send their burglar in alone to snatch the Arkenstone, a shimmering gem that promises to rally their people to their cause. More physical comedy in this most stressful of situations follows from Freeman; his dedication to the character of a neurotic British bourgeois fusspot in the face of high-heroic situations remains as true to the written Bilbo as can be, despite the films’ other departures. His nervous shrinking as the true scale of his scaly foe is revealed (and Smaug is indeed irrepressibly massive) emphasizes grandiosity with comedy; it’s another of the film’s great delightful beats.

Bilbo parlays with Smaug (Cumberbatch is blessed with a fine, resonant voice and utilizes its full range, and one fancies that certain visual ticks of his mannered acting are retained by Weta Digital’s artists in the dragon’s expressions) and it’s well-enough done, even if the comedy of manners and peril that animates their exchange in the book is diminished by Bilbo’s treasure-sliding pursuit of the Arkenstone. A genuinely radical departure follows their iconic conversation, as Thorin and the dwarves fashion a trap for the dragon employing their intimate knowledge of their vast ancestral halls, utilizing their towering forges in particular. The sequence seems distinctly second-rate, however, falling well short of the barrel riding for sheer goofy thrills, even if it grants the dwarves a more active role in attempting to rid their realm of the dragon.

As The Desolation of Smaug reaches its sharp cliffhanger ending, it comes time to judge the film and our reactions to it. Critical consensus has it as a superior and more entertaining second chapter after the disappointing opening installment, while early box office receipts indicate that audiences are not responding to it with their dollars as enthusiastically as they did for the commercial hit An Unexpected JourneySuch totalizing classifications (better than, worse than, as good as) only tell us so much. This is a different sort of film, more episodic in narrative construction and more reliant on the imaginative flourishes overlaid by Jackson onto the solid frame of Tolkien’s story and characters.

Yes, there’s a tacked-on fiery dragon-battling finale and a spurious but not wholly tacky Elf/Elf/Dwarf love triangle, and the actioned-up proceedings in general still depart from Tolkien’s scholarly foundations more than ever seems necessary or even prudent. But The Desolation of Smaug is a full-bore entertainment, and a brazen one at that. It demonstrates Peter Jackson fully engaged at fiendish play in the cinematic sandbox for perhaps the first time since The Frighteners, and treats the supposed sanctity of its source material with a bluff disregard that is almost refreshing. This ain’t your older sibling’s Lord of the Rings; heck, it isn’t even the younger Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. It’s wackier, weirder, less consistent and less majestic. It’s a furious, fleeting doodle where the earlier trilogy was a careful, permanent etching. The approach is not entirely unworthy of Tolkien’s lighter hobbit’s tale, after all. And as The Desolation of Smaug continues to prove out, it’s not entirely unworthy of filmgoers’ appreciation either.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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