Editor’s Notes: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is now in wide release.
Desolation of Smaug is the Hobbit film we’ve been waiting for. Peter Jackson has undoubtedly got his mojo back in his latest offering that, by comparison, makes its 2012 predecessor look like a dire effort indeed. Whereas An Unexpected Journey acted merely as a stretched out introduction to the prequel trilogy, Desolation of Smaug allows the audience to sink its teeth into its characters and story-threads whilst being lavished with nostalgic flourishes and a wider scope of Middle Earth. Jackson has hit the nail firmly on the head in this rewarding, entertaining and, most importantly, satisfying watch.
Desolation of Smaug sees the squabbling company of dwarves continue their quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from the grips of Smaug, taking them into the unimaginably vast Mirkwood, which resembles a certain Fangorn Forest. The dwarves encounter Beorn the Skin-Changer, Thranduil and his kingdom of wood-elves, giant spiders and, of course, Orcs, before finally reaching Esgaroth, or Lake-town. Using this opportunity to re-gather supplies and weapons, the company continues on toward Erebor, and to the horror that lies in wait. Meanwhile, Gandalf goes to face the mysterious necromancer in Dol Guldur.
Unlike the previous installment, there is enough happening in Desolation of Smaug to fill the engorged running time. Thankfully, the film avoids feeling like butter scraped over too much bread, remaining eventful and captivating until its abrupt conclusion.
From the onset, the atmosphere of the film feels foreign to that of An Unexpected Journey; a real sense of urgency is propagated and maintained throughout Desolation of Smaug, a film that doesn’t feel stretched or rushed. Unlike the previous installment, there is enough happening in Desolation of Smaug to fill the engorged running time. Thankfully, the film avoids feeling like butter scraped over too much bread, remaining eventful and captivating until its abrupt conclusion.
As well as an action-packed main plot, Jackson doesn’t forget his intriguing subplot; Dol Guldur. Although the pace of story is substantially slower, Dol Guldur remains an ominous and foreboding presence in the narrative. A certain scene of conflict between Gandalf and the Necromancer is especially captivating; the sheer wizardry and artistry of the scene is commendable alone. Conventional battle scenes are left at the door in this chilling sequence of light versus dark. There is also a sense of dramatic irony attached to the scene – because of the prequel nature of the film, the audience of course know what lingers in Dol Guldur; but the explanation and backstory is no less entertaining because of this foreknowledge. The reappearances of the Eye of Sauron and black speech are just a few of the many successful touches of nostalgia that Jackson applies in Desolation of Smaug.
That being said, Jackson and his screenwriters have developed a bad habit of fabricating irrelevant and directionless story-threads. The almost-love triangle between elves Tauriel, Legolas and dwarf Kili feels contrived and forced, adding little to the plot. The morgul shaft element concerning Kili was also a random inclusion that, apparently, only appeared to allow Tauriel to develop as a character. Although a clever method in which to accomplish just that, Jackson seems to deviating a little further than normal away from the storyline of the book. It’s a fact that keeping Tolkien purists happy with an adaptation is nigh impossible, but Desolation of Smaug almost awards them a two-fingered gesture with its constant changing of the actual storylines, some of which have no deeper meaning or obvious purpose at all.
Having only witnessed him briefly in An Unexpected Journey, Thranduil is perhaps the most intriguing and intricate Elf character in Desolation of Smaug. Played to complex perfection by Lee Pace, Thranduil is somewhat of an anti-hero in the film; he emanates an air of courtesy and grace whilst not entirely being able to conceal the shadows of greed and malice that bubble just beneath the surface of that serene exterior. He’s a character that certainly needs more screen time in There and Back Again, and looks to be an unpredictable force when the Battle of the Five Armies commences.
The main event of Desolation of Smaug – the unveiling of the fire-breather himself – does not disappoint. Pulling off a talking dragon without coming across as comical is certainly a feat and Smaug is awarded a complex but equally malevolent personality. The smoldering, gravelly voice of the dragon, delivered by Benedict Cumberbatch, is as fearsome as its physical embodiment. Truly, Smaug is the biggest accomplishment of the film; his voice, appearance and demeanor are executed perfectly. He doesn’t come across as mindless monster, but rather a wise and cunning being of ancient origins, disturbingly bereft of morality or conscience. And once again, Jackson puts his skills of mise-en-scene to work when Bilbo enters the mighty halls of Erebor to be met with mountains of gold and a giant snoozing reptile. This scene, possibly one of the best in the film, is simply enthralling.
With the highly eventful main narrative unfolding, it’s easy to forget about a silent, ominous presence in Desolation of Smaug; The Ring. Like An Unexpected Journey before it, the Ring is a pivotal force in the film. Not only allowing Bilbo to become invisible in times of desperate need, it also allows him intriguing insight when he enters the wraith-realm that add an unpredictable level of depth to the narrative. In the chilling spider sequence, Bilbo can hear the raspy voices of the giant arachnids; although disturbing, it certainly is an intriguing flourish to the film. Furthermore, Jackson uses the Ring to develop Bilbo’s character evermore – in a certain scene, the Ring is dropped and almost claimed by an eyeless creature emerging from the ground before Bilbo enters a frenzy of violence until the Ring is once again in his grasp, prior to uttering the fateful “Mine!”.
Truly, Smaug is the biggest accomplishment of the film; his voice, appearance and demeanor are executed perfectly. He doesn’t come across as mindless monster, but rather a wise and cunning being of ancient origins, disturbingly bereft of morality or conscience.
Although the pros seem to outweigh the cons in Desolation of Smaug, the film looks to be a divider of opinions – naturally, purists will hate it for some of the rash creative decision it makes but it is nonetheless a wholesome and fulfilling adaptation that improves vastly on An Unexpected Journey. But truly, the rendering of the film into 3D is completely unnecessary, as is its projection at 48fps instead of 24fps. The 3D and HFR element of Desolation of Smaug award it substantially more harm than good, seemingly overlaying it with a clean, sparkly sheen that looks out of place in the gritty world of Middle Earth. Such “modernizations” only shed light on the embarrassing truth of Jackson’s recent laziness; once again, 50% of the antagonistic characters are CGI-animated – this is painfully obvious. Although we can but hope, gone are the days of realistic, gritty action scenes like those from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, replaced by what looks like a cut scene from a video game. With the Battle of the Five Armies looming, one can only hope that Jackson regresses to the greatness of Pelennor Fields or the Hornburg – but don’t hold your breath.
The Desolation of Smaug is a flawed film, victim to some questionable creative decisions that leave some to be desired but ultimately, is executed reasonably well. The film is leagues better than its predecessor and offers a magnificently wider scope on the infinite landscape of Middle Earth. The scriptural plagues are balanced out by firm direction, story consistency and cast performance that altogether contribute in making Desolation of Smaug an action-packed adventure that never falters in delivering blow after blow of entertainment. The only desolation to be found in this film is that of Smaug – otherwise, sit back and enjoy a cinematic event brimming with artistic flair, nuances of nostalgia and Gandalf’s beard.
[notification type=”star”]85/100 ~ GREAT. The Desolation of Smaug is a flawed film, victim to some questionable creative decisions that leave some to be desired but ultimately, is executed reasonably well. The film is leagues better than its predecessor and offers a magnificently wider scope on the infinite landscape of Middle Earth. [/notification]