The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013): Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, and directed by Peter Jackson. Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, and Orlando Bloom. Music by: Howard Shore. Running Time: 161 minutes. Based on The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein.
As good as Desolation of Smaug is- and it is very good, in some ways better than last year’s opening feature- I can’t help but feel worried for the finale next year, because Smaug chooses to end before any of the really major events of the book go down. Given the fact that, in addition to the story of the book itself, this trilogy has also committed to throwing in an outside story about the Necromancer, next year’s conclusion to the Hobbit trilogy is going to be stuffed to the gills with plot. That’s not to say that Jackson can’t pull it off- he did so handsomely in Return of the King, and there’s no indication thus far that he can’t do so again, even though this series will never hold a candle to its predecessor. However, that is a question to be dealt with in a year’s time, when the trilogy will be complete and we can finally look at this new set of LOTR movies as an aggregate whole. For now, I’m content to enjoy Smaug for what it is; another rollickingly enjoyable Middle Earth adventure.
After getting a glimpse of how and why Thorin and Gandalf teamed up to start the quest, we jump right back into the middle of the main story. Bilbo and the dwarves take brief refuge in the home of Beorn, a Skin-Changer who agrees to guide them to the edges of Murkwood, through which they must go if they are to arrive at the mountain on time to open the secret door mentioned in the last film. They are still being pursued by good ‘ol Whitey, but he is soon called back to the lair where the Necromancer is building a new goblin army to prepare them for war (this part should actually tie into the end of the book very well).
Unable to find their way through the woods, the dwarves are briefly captured by man-eating spiders before Bilbo is able to save them using the ring. Said salvation is brief though, as they are almost immediately captured again, this time by the Wood Elves, led by Prince Legolas, who at this point in his life was still very anti-dwarf. It’s actually quite nice to see Orlando Bloom back in a role that suits him. Obviously his presence is a marked deviation from the book, but it’s a welcome one. Another deviation is his companion/obvious love interest, Tauriel, Captain of the Guard, one of Jackon’s better deus ex machine devices, who soon develops feelings for the dwarf Fili. Thus far, this setup barely qualifies as a love triangle, and if Jackson knows what’s good for him, he’ll keep it that way. I actually don’t mind the idea of a dwarf-elf romance as a subplot, it would let the movies dig a bit more into the complex inter-species politics of Middle Earth. What DOES bother me is that the one dwarf singled out for a romance is the one that looks much less like a dwarf and more like a Vogue model in mini.
Bilbo, in yet another clever rescue attempt, is soon able to steal the keys and ushers the dwarves into a collection of empty wine barrels bound for Esgaroth, the small lake-town built by the survivors of Smaug’s attack on Dale. They eventually run into Bard, descendant of the old rulers of Dale, who smuggles them into the city, currently under the iron fist of the fat and greedy Master of Lake Town, who agrees to help Thorin for his own blindly selfish reasons. Unlike Legolas or Tauriel, Luke Evans’ Bard is a character from the book, but his role here as the proverbial “good guy” is a significant expansion of Jackson's making. And like with Legolas and Tauriel, it's a good one, as it allows us to have a more emotional connection to the people who eventually bear the brunt of Smaug’s wrath.
Before you ask, yes, the barrel-riding scene is a VERY gratuitously long sequence, but it’s the abjectly and absurdly fun kind of gratuitous. It may, strictly speaking, be “unnecessary,” but bringing the word “unnecessary” into discussions of cinematic fantasy is a slippery slope when not carefully managed because, strictly speaking, no fantasy tale, no movie (or any art for that matter), is “necessary.” So I prefer to content myself with the question, “Is it fun enough to justify its existence?” And in my opinion, hell yes, it absolutely is, although I fully sympathize with those who find it as excessive as the Misty Mountain fight in An Unexpected Journey.
Even more fun, though, is pretty much the entire third act of the movie, after the dwarves enter the mountain and finally encounter Smaug. It’s rather telling that out of the FIVE full-length movies he’s appeared in this year (no really, FIVE), Smaug is the finest performance Benedict Cumberbatch graced us with in 2013. With a voice so rich, so mellow, and yet so full of viciously clever villainy, the appearance of Smaug and his entire conversation with Bilbo is more than enough to justify the price of admission. The Hobbit series, thus far, has had many, many flaws, and has probably broken a few hearts as well, but thank Jesus, they nailed it with Smaug. Like with Gollum in the original trilogy, Smaug could have gone so horribly, terribly wrong, and they just GOT it here. It’s a shame they don’t give him a belly covered in gemstones, like in the book, but the voice and writing is so spot-on, I couldn’t bring myself to care.
Again though, like its predecessor, Smaug is brought down a peg by what is, in the end, the only flaw of any real consequence in these films, and that is the relatively large stretches of time where Bilbo is literally nowhere to be seen. Again, like with the last one, the time away from Bilbo and the quest is not really bad, per say- we get some great world building with the petty Elvin King Thranduil, Gandalf gets some cool moments investigating the mystery of the Necromancer (who is really Sauron, completely unnecessary spoiler), we get a strong feel for the corrupt poverty of Esgaroth, and all of it is very well-made and acted. In a rather perverse way, the only real problem with all that is that Martin Freeman is just so damn good as Bilbo, it almost feels like a waste when we’re deprived of more time to watch him grimace, gulp, and do constant double-takes when something newly horrible comes along, only to find a way to overcome it.
For me, this is epitomized by the fact that the movie never once mentions that the day of the gang’s arrival in Esgaroth is Bilbo’s 51st birthday. For all the tiny tidbits Jackson brings to life with his cinematic magic, that piece was apparently too small to worry about. And, if I am to be honest, when I first realized that as the credits rolled, I felt a small yet distinct sadness. In a world full of powerful races, kings, wizards, and schemers, the hobbit characters consistently provide the heart and soul that make Middle Earth a world caring about. And when that heart is missing, the rest of the movie suffers as a result. It’s there in the beginning, it’s there in the end, but in the middle it drops out a few times too often. It does not ruin this particular movie for me, but how it’s handled in the final installment will be the crucial dividing line between this trilogy being truly great, and being just very good.