THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG: You Have Nice Manners for a Thief

Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) – Directed by Peter Jackson – Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Ken O’Gorman, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, Cate Blanchett, Sylvester McCoy, Orlando Bloom, Manu Bennet, Mikael Persbrandt, Ryan Gage, John Bell, Lawrence Makoare, Stephen Fry, and Stephen Colbert.

Every discussion about Peter Jackson’s THE HOBBIT starts with an acknowledgment that it is not J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT. If you are, like me, okay with this, then the films can be taken as they are, to be enjoyed or disliked as big budget, CGI-driven spectacle. If you are not okay with the Jacksonized Middle Earth, I can understand how these films might drive you nuts.

I’ll repeat my long-standing line one more time: I don’t care a whole lot if the movies represent the source material. I own the source material. I’ve been picturing Middle Earth in my head since I was 5. I’m okay with seeing someone else’s version. Heck, I want to see someone else’s version. Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth is high on emotion, high on spectacle, big on friendship, and peppered with humor, and I’m still enjoying the heck out of it.

I will admit that THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG might be my least favorite of the five movies, but that’s still the equivalent of giving it an “A” instead of an “A+.” SMAUG is a big, dark spectacle that is occasionally undone by the sometimes competing desires to get to the next spectacle and give all of Thorin’s 12 dwarf companions some screen time. The film also further pushes in Thorin’s direction, and SMAUG is, until the titular dragon in revealed beneath a pile of gold coins, really as much Thorin’s movie as it is Bilbo’s.

We start with a trilogy prelude this time out, as Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) enters the Inn of the Prancing Pony in the village of Bree for food and drink. He notices two fellow guests eyeing him suspiciously, but before they can make a move on him, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) joins him, spooking the would-be assassins. Gandalf’s meeting is not a coincidence, of course, and he delivers news to Thorin that a price has been placed on his head and it’s time to stop living in the past and give up the search for his father. It is time for him to take his place on the throne, with the added help of Gandalf the Grey and a particular burglar.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is much more confident this time around, and Freeman does an excellent job showing the internal conflict Bilbo is experiencing without vocalizing it. The One Ring is weighing heavily in his pocket, and he is aware of the changes occurring inside of him every time he uses it as he becomes addicted to the possession of the ring. It’s a curious thing, this relationship with the ring. What Freeman does an fantastic job relaying is that Bilbo’s addiction isn’t to the use of the ring, but rather that simple act of ownership. When the companion’s are in Mirkwood and battling the giant spiders, Bilbo drops the ring. When he spies it on the ground and rushes towards it, a spider crawls up from out of the ground to get in his way. Instead of cowering in fear as he might have pre-ring, Bilbo viciously lashes out at the spider, using Sting to bash and batter the spider to death.

Earlier, he couldn’t even bring himself to tell Gandalf about the ring, an acknowledgment of knowledge also having a possessive quality.

Bilbo gets to play action hero multiple times in SMAUG, rescuing the dwarves from the giant spiders and again from the elves of Mirkwood. While Bilbo is never far from the screen, he does not have a complicated arc this time out – he’s braver, he’s more possessive of the ring, he’s clever enough to solve the riddle of the doorway into the Lonely Mountain, and then the dwarves force him back into the narrative when they send him down to steal the Arkenstone.

The extended sequence with Smaug (built by computers, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), is the biggest geek-out moment of the film. With a look that clearly owes some debt to the Rankin/Bass 1977 movie, Bilbo and Smaug engage in a battle of flattery that leads to a game of hide and seek, which leads to a full out confrontation when Thorin and the dwarves venture into the mountain from the safety of the doorway.

Benedict Cumberbatch and whatever computer program they fed his voice through do a magnificent job with Smaug. The dragon is haughty and clever, patient and explosive, and when he moves you can feel his power thudding through the halls of Erebor. Thorin tricks him into relighting the giant forges, and they end up attempting to kill him by dousing him with molten gold. I could watch Smaug stomp and writhe through Erebor for 3 hours all by itself, but I’m perfectly happy with the hour we got.

Richard Armitage as Thorin

Richard Armitage as Thorin

It’s Thorin’s square shoulders that bear the bulk of the weight in SMAUG. The opening sequence with him and Gandalf at the Prancing Pony clues us in that this will be as much Thorin’s movie as it is Bilbo’s, and during much of the film the two share the lead narratives. Richard Armitage imbues the would-be king with a heavy heart, fueled by grim determination. He is a proud ruler, unwilling to trade his freedom in Mirkwood for bringing the Elven King Thranduil (Lee Pace) lost treasure.

I wish Jackson and his team of writers had created a stronger relationship between Bilbo and Thorin. There are small acknowledgments here and there – Bilbo orders the dwarves into barrels in Mirkwood, they all refuse, and Thorin steps in to issue the same order as Bilbo, causing the company to now snap into action – but no cohesive arc for the two characters is present. When Thorin orders Bilbo to head down into Erebor to steal the Arkenstone, he remains outside, and his quest for the throne brings out the worst in him. Eventually, after being shamed by Balin (Ken Stott), Thorin does head down into Erebor, though it’s unclear if he’s driven by a desire to help Bilbo or because he doesn’t trust Bilbo to find the Arkenstone. At this point, Bilbo is hightailing it back to the surface, and he and Thorin run into each other on a staircase landing. Thorin’s reaction is focused more on the Arkenstone but when Smaug arrives he doesn’t cower, either. If anything, Smaug’s arrival snaps Thorin back to reality, but I feel like Jackson completely botched Thorin’s surprise appearance inside the mountain.

After Thorin’s plan to kill Smaug fails, the dragon bursts from the mountain to wreak vengeance on Lake-town, and our last shot of the mountain is a distraught Bilbo watching Smaug, wondering just what they’ve done.

It’s a powerful moment, and the audience’s happy frustration at not seeing the town get destroyed by dragon fire (this might be Jackson’s best cliffhanger), speaks to that, but it really should be a moment where Thorin is included, too. With the narrative split as it is between he and Bilbo, and with Thorin having that opening prelude scene, it feels like he needs to be in this scene, too, so we get a full sense of closure.

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel

There are other subplots in SMAUG, that ease the narrative burden away from our two leads. Gandalf runs around doing the Gandalf thing, looking for evil in dark places and getting caught by wizards more powerful than him. He’s got a momentary sidekick in Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) who doesn’t really do a whole lot in this film, but I mention him because Doctor Who.

Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel, a Peter Jackson original, who is a lower class Wood Elf whom both Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Kíli (Aidan Turner) have a romantic interest in. It’s nice to have Legolas back (more or less) but he’s pretty much a jerk through the whole film, which puts a damper on all his fancy arrow shooting. That he gets to meet Glóin, father of his eventual BFF, Gimli, is a nice moment if you know it’s a moment, and completely blah otherwise.

I had a fair amount of concern over the Tauriel character; from the ads and trailers, I had a fear that she wouldn’t be anything more than Legolas 2 (meaning, she’d be good at shooting arrows and she’d want nothing more than to suck face with Legolas). I’m happy to say that all of my worries were for naught – Tauriel is a fantastic addition to the film, and her relationship with Kíli is a low-key highlight amidst all the giant spiders and snarling orcs. The dwarf’s flirtation with the cold elf, and the elf’s expanding warmth for the dwarf is a welcome, smaller moment that the film desperately needs.

We’re introduced to Bard (Luke Evans), a bargeman who also stirs up a bit of discontent in Lake-town (where Stephen Colbert and his family live as spies). He smuggles the dwarves and Bilbo into the city, where it’s established the Mayor (Stephen Fry) and his sniveling sidekick, Alfrid (Ryan Gage) aren’t fans. Bard is a conflicted character, clearly okay with helping the dwarves but not interested in helping them reclaim their mountain kingdom. Because this is Tolkien, it means almost everyone important is the ancestor of someone important, Bard is descended from Girion (also played by Luke Evans), the King of Dale when Smaug thrashed it. It’s in Bard’s house where Tauriel saves Kíli, and in Bard’s house where the last black arrow that can kill Smaug is kept.

On the whole, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is a very good film. There were times when I was a bit overwhelmed by the unrelenting spectacle and wish maybe we had one less set-piece – as much as I love the inclusion of the Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), it does not add much to the film – and a bit more time to hear from the characters. Other than Thorin, Balin, Bofur (James Nesbitt), and Kíli, the rest of the dwarves are little more than background dressing.

There is no denying, however, my appreciation for Jackson’s ability to pull off a CGI spectacle, and no limit to the amount of times I’m willing to come back to his amped-up Middle Earth, or the amount of hours I’m willing to spend being a visitor in it. THE HOBBIT trilogy lacks the emotional impact of the LORD OF THE RINGS films, but the spectacle is still strong and exhilarating.

_________

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It’s 1866. Jill Masters, a merchant’s daughter, and Hanna Pak, her servant, have left Boston for the American West. They’re on the trail of Dotson Winters, Jill’s kidnapped fiancé, a man she doesn’t love but has agreed to marry to save her father’s business.

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The Haunting of Kraken Moor (horror)
Gunfighter Gotchic Volume 1: Under Zeppelin Skies
Adventures of the Five (Book 1): The Coming of Frost (children lit)
Adventures of the Five (Book 2): The Christmas Engine
Stuffed Animals for Hire (children lit)
Harpsichord and the Wormhole Witches (cosmic pulp)
Dreamer’s Syndrome: Into the New World (urban fantasy)
Rise of the First Woman: A Dreamer’s Syndrome Anthology (urban fantasy)
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3 thoughts on “THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG: You Have Nice Manners for a Thief

  1. I’m going to be totally honest here, and say that not only was this my least favorite of the five thus far, but it did something I didn’t think was possible, it bored me from time to time.

    It felt like a lot of the set pieces were drawn out and overdone, like they just ran on and wore out their welcome. Specifically, I could have done without half the barrel escape/battle scene, which just didn’t feel paced right, and Legolas’s fight with the orc hunters near the end of the film. Maybe some of the issue was that it’s hard to build suspense when we know nothing serious is going to happen to the character, but that fight honestly bored the hell out of me, I totally lost interest and just wanted it to end.

    I don’t have a problem with Jackson tacking on extra material here and there, but that fight (and most of Orlando Bloom’s screen time in this film, to be honest) just felt tacked-on without any real point other than getting a familiar face in the movie.
    The rest of the film, I think worked reasonably well. I wish Beorn had a little more screen time and development, but he gets short-sift in the book as well.

    I liked the way Jackson handled the trip through Mirkwood. It was wildly different than what we were given in the text, but considering the compressed time-frame the film journey was tacking place in it felt right. The spider scene was clever, fun to watch, and segued into the elf king’s domain pretty well.

    I really loved the visuals as well, and they captured Lake Town, Dale, and Erebor wonderfully. Smaug was masterfully animated and voiced. He really felt alive.

    That ending sequence led to the last two problems I had with the movie. One of those issues was almost made up for just because it made for more Smaug stalking about. The other may resolve itself in the final film, I suppose it remains to be seen.

    I feel like having Thorin and the dwarves all down confronting the dragon did a disservice both to Smaug, and to Bilbo. In the book (and I know, these are not the book, but I feel like in this case the comparison is warranted) the dwarves send Bilbo down on a recon mission in large part because they are all too scared to confront the dragon in his lair directly. They know they are hopelessly over-matched and act accordingly. That these battle hardened men wouldn’t go anywhere near the dragon really drives home the point of how terrifyingly powerful Smaug is, such an imposing presence that nobody dares even be in a position to look at him.

    By having the whole party fight Smaug, it made him feel a little less imposing. He was just another obstacle to overcome, not the impossible force of nature he should have been.

    It also took something away from the notion of Bilbo being stealthy and clever enough to carry the day, trick the dragon, and be the hero.

    The last gripe was the addition of the crazy dwarf crossbow and magic black arrow/harpoon. I understand that Jackson probably felt like there had to be some suitably huge weapon to take down the dragon in the next film, and it definitely looks cool. The problem I have with it is that it makes Bard a little less ‘special’. Now he isn’t the reluctant hero of the people who is an amazing archer with nerves of steel. Instead he is a disgraced ancestor of a failed king, trying to redeem himself not with skill, but with some big, iron dues ex machina.

    I don’t know. It was a good film, just didn’t quite hit the right notes for me. They can’t all be bullseyes I suppose.

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  2. You’re making me want to go see this one more time in the theater. And my theater actually still has one showing, at 9:20 pm which would actually work for me to quick chuck the kids in bed and duck out to the movies… except I have a cold and really need to sleep instead. Phooey.

    Anyway, I agree with you on pretty much everything. Again. I, too, was skeptical about Tauriel and then converted to total fandom. I could have watched 3 hours of Smaug and Bilbo playing 20 Questions. And Thorin… Thorin is a jerk, and Peter Jackson is trying to make him less of a jerk, but… he’s still a jerk.

    This bit of yours:

    Gandalf runs around doing the Gandalf thing,

    made me laugh aloud. Good thing I’d finished drinking my coffee already or I’d be wiping off the keyboard now.

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  3. I have never been shy about my apathy toward the “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy. I appreciate them on a technical level and think they are amazing looking movies that do a convincing job of transporting me to another world. And the battle scenes are spectacular. But as for the story…Meh. Yes, I said Meh and I meant Meh. And since there are multiple versions of LOTR can they release a version that has all of the scenes with Frodo and Sam trudging toward Mount Doom deleted?

    But the two HOBBIT movies….now this is more like it. I dunno what it is about these movies. Maybe because the plot doesn’t seem so meandering and all over the place. Maybe it’s because Bilbo is more of a proactive hero than the whiny Frodo. Maybe I just like kick-ass dwarves better than I like Hobbits. All I know is that both HOBBIT movies have grabbed me and won’t let me. The cliffhangers at the end of both movies and especially THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG left me screaming in frustration because I didn’t want the movie to end and it’s very few movies that can do that.

    I don’t own LOTR on DVD or Blu-Ray and have no desire at all to do so but when the HOBBIT trilogy is eventually released on Blu-Ray in (no doubt extended versions) I’m there Day One to purchase it. ‘Nuff said.

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