Smaug is the one bright spot in ‘Desolation’

Review of The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, Directed by Peter Jackson

In case it wasn’t obvious enough from An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug does not tell the story of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved book, The Hobbit. The characters, names, and events are all there, but the strands of the story weave together into something else entirely. It’s not “the enchanting prequel to The Lord of the Rings” as experienced through the eyes of Bilbo Baggins. Instead, it purports to be an epic prequel to The Lord of the Rings.

Because so much of the source material comes from The Hobbit, I could not take the epic parts seriously. By the time we’re done watching the dwarves careen down a river in barrels as Legolas balances on top of their heads, all while killing orcs, we just can’t take Gandalf’s faceoff with the black cloud of Sauron seriously. The former is campy, and the latter looks like a video game. Benedict Cumberbatch’s spot-on rendering of the dragon Smaug –ferocious, beautiful, terrifying, and seductive –does much to salvage this. Yet even Smaug wears out his welcome after an overdrawn sequence of ring-around-the-mountain with the dwarves culminates with them dousing him in a dragon-sized pool of molten gold.

Poor Bilbo, meanwhile, falls to the periphery and, just like he often felt in the story, gets lost in the shuffle. At this point in the story, he only matters because he has the ring. Already its evil premonitions have begun. Confronting the raw evil of Smaug face to face, for example, causes Bilbo to pull off the ring on a strange, Sauron-influenced impulse. Earlier while fighting the spiders in Mirkwood, he drops the ring on the forest floor. To recover it, he brutally hacks his way through a small, whiny arachnid-crustacean creature. With a sudden lust and hatred in Bilbo’s eyes, we’re left unsure whether to pity or hate this creature because it conveniently popped out of the ground between him and his precious ring.

All this, of course, feeds into the greater narrative of The Hobbit films of a new evil rising in Middle Earth under the Necromancer, who is ultimately Sauron. The shift in the story’s timbre here from that of the book is understandable given that it will be expanded into a trilogy, but in doing so it sucks the whimsy out of Middle Earth. Even the moments of magic and cleverness that delighted us in An Unexpected Journey are gone. That film at least nailed certain signature moments like Gandalf’s first meeting Bilbo and the riddles in the dark with Gollum. This time, we aren’t treated to Gandalf’s clever method of introducing the dwarves one or two at a time to Beorn or the Mirkwood elves’ parties that vanish instantly into the night. In their place are spectacle-laden action sequences that show off the elves acrobatic prowess and the superhuman engineering of the dwarves in Erebor. We have plenty of fun here, but nothing that grabs us by the heart.

In this epic telling of The Hobbit, the ring is no longer merely a clever trinket for Bilbo. With flashes of Sauron’s eye and the eerie score from The Lord of the Rings, it doesn’t hide its evil under a veil of innocent magic. Orcs pop up everywhere, whether it’s on the outskirts of Beorn’s house, at the borders of the Mirkwood elves kingdom, or hopping across rooftops in Dale (since when did they become so stealthy?). And we see Gandalf’s wizard powers on full display before Sauron, who appears first as a black, void-like cloud and eventually as a fiery humanoid reminiscent of his physical manifestation in the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring. Neither apparition is scary. In fact, with the exception of Smaug, none of the baddies strike us with much dread at all.

For this reason, even apart from my own personal preference for Middle-earth accuracy, Desolation of Smaug is an objectively poor film. In an apparent attempt for compensate for a lack of heart, it torpedoes itself by adding a romantic subplot between the dwarf Fili and elf warrior Tauriel. I am astounded that anyone involved in the creation of this film could have thought this was a good idea. Out of all of Tolkien’s abundant Middle-earth source material, the filmmakers take it upon themselves to create a new character, cause her to spontaneously fall for a dwarf (and vice versa), and sprinkle her in to the story by way of skirmishes against spiders and orcs. Such cheap, forced drama fails to resonate. Coming from the Middle-earth universe, I expect much better.

Unlike masterful part twos of other trilogies – The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers, The Dark Knight, and to a lesser degree this year’s Catching FireDesolation of Smaug sinks in the end because it doesn’t resolve any of the major conflicts it introduces. (SPOILERS) After more than two and a half hours, it cuts to credits with Smaug winging his way toward Dale, no one in possession of the Arkenstone, Legolas galloping in pursuit of the orc raider Bolg, Bard locked in jail, and Gandalf caged in Dol Guldor. We may have plenty to anticipate in part three, There And Back Again, but for now, we must content ourselves with a glorified playtime in Middle Earth and no emotional payoff.

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