Imagine living in colonial times, stepping off your ship and onto the new world. Out from the brush comes a tribe of people you have never seen before. They are mostly naked, wearing only the skins of animals. Their most advanced weapon is the bow and arrow. Compared to you, in your shining metal armor and with a musket in hand, they appear positively primitive. Clearly yours is the advanced race… or maybe they didn’t even have the horse until around 1600… maybe it has more to do with that.
This is why history matters when composing setting.
Eleven years ago, New Line Cinema released The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The second chapter in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy found incredible critical acclaim and took home two Oscars. However, departures from the source material, including the delay of Shelob, the character change of Faramir and the presence of elves at the battle of Helms Deep, angered some of the more diehard Tolkien fans. To those people I have one thing to say: STAY AWAY FROM THIS MOVIE. Of course, if you sleep with The Hobbit on your nightstand and hold the word of Tolkien as law, then you probably already walked away from this new trilogy in disgust last December. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a bold departure from the source material and… a pretty good movie… I think? I’ll get into it.
(MINOR SPOILERS TO FOLLOW)
The Desolation of Smaug essentially picks up right where the first film left off. As you may remember, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and company are on the edge of Mirkwood. The orcs are still right behind them and the eagles have left to return to the realm of Deus ex Machina. Yet there is also flashback scene to ease us into our fifth return to Middle-Earth. Returning to the famous “Prancing Pony” Inn from Fellowship of the Ring, we witness the initial meeting between Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Thorin (Richard Armitage). This scene, as well as many of additions/changes to the source material, exists for one purpose: there are bigger things going on in Middle-Earth than Smaug.
This is grand departure. While Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy employees Bilbo Baggins as its chief protagonist, its identity is not that of the simple children’s adventure story. These movies represent the beginning of the war of the ring.
Did you hear that? Every diehard Hobbit book fan just groaned.
Yes, it is true, that little band of gold is as much of a star in this movie as Martin Freeman or Ian McKellen. Really, it is arguably a larger star than Freeman, who sadly takes a backseat in this second installment. Personally I felt that one of the strongest plus factors going in An Unexpected Journey was the strong characterization of Bilbo Baggins. Evidently Jackson and co. felt entitled to a pass this time around.
So, amidst the gathering doom of greater forces, the little dwarf quest continues – and is a lot more fun this time around. The film only really falters at the beginning with the interjection of Beorn (a were-bear who will no doubt come back into play in the third installment) before hitting its stride in Mirkwood. We get spiders and elves and a barrel chase and it is all great fun. The addition of Evangeline Lilly as Turiel, an elf guardsman, is welcome and breathes life into the movie. Really her performance and subsequent subplot with the dwarf, Kili do a lot to improve the pacing and give the audience a breather from the one-track Thorin (this dwarf needs his mountain something fierce) and the somber beginnings of Sauron (one of two villains this movie voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).
The result is a pace that feels at a thrilling rush and gets us to Lake-town feeling jazzed to see what comes next. What comes next: the audience is introduced to Luke Evans (good performance) and Stephen Fry (Republican performance) before it’s off to see the dragon!
Now, about that dragon… here come my spoilers. Those out there wishing to see Smaug die, you’re not getting your Christmas present this year. Peter Jackson, possibly trying to emulate the Hunger Games: Catching Fire, has gone the root of the abrupt cliffhanger leaving all resolution for the Hobbit: There and Back Again. The result is a jarring ending preced by a greatly expanded upon confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug (voiced by dragon-Sherlock aka Benedict Cumberbatch).
I said at the beginning of this review that I wasn’t sure how to feel about the movie and that’s why. This doesn’t feel like a complete story. Unlike the chapters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, not much is resolved at the end of the Desolation of Smaug. There is no victory at Helms Deep, no breaking of the fellowship: the movie just ends. Yes, one can argue that the climactic expulsion of Smaug (yes, he gets forced from the mountain in this movie) is enough but that dragon is still alive and in good, fire-breathing shape.
Ironically this tale feels more like part one-of-two than part two-of-three. As a piece of a film, it is entertaining and fun… but it only a piece of a film. The final word on Peter Jackson’s trilogy will come next December. Until then, The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug is a solid blockbuster rich in Tolkien lore. I just hope that all of this buildup has a payoff… other than the Battle of Five Armies.
PS – For those curious about my thoughts on the first movie, click here!