The Desolation of Smaug (TDOS) is the middle installment of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy. Since it lacks the exposition of a beginning and a final climax of an ending, the producers knew that the best way to make this a satisfying part of the whole was that there had to be action, and plenty of it. And TDOS delivers. What the novel couldn’t convey with the written word Peter Jackson and company brings you visually. And it’s a real treat.
Every action sequence becomes bigger and more elaborate and every non-action scene gets a little action added in for good measure. It’s enough to make your head spin (literally, at 48 frames per second). Generally speaking, the film does not leave out very much from the book and what little that was left out probably won’t be missed. And, like its predecessor, TDOS has added a whole lot more to the story. Clocking in at 2 hours and 40 minutes (5 minutes less than AUJ) there is very little opportunity to notice its hearty length. Now, some will take exception to all the "filler" added in by the producers. But as I've said in the past regarding "The Lord of the Rings" films, you just can't make these movies long enough for me.
I do, however, acknowledge one flaw in the execution. When Peter Jackson made his Rings trilogy the result was that a lot of people who were previously unfamiliar with the source material were inspired to go out and read the books. While the films were incredible, the story from which it drew inspiration was timeless and almost perfectly executed. New Tolkien fans were born. Here, the films so out-shadow the book that anyone who picks it up for the first time will most likely be disappointed. We can all accuse Jackson and company of being indulgent with his version but at the end of the day I can't blame him. If you're going to do it do it big, no?
A solid roller-coaster of a ride, TDOS does not disappoint whether you have been waiting for this for sooooo long or you are new to the material. It takes the pacing of An Unexpected Journey (AUJ) and kicks it into gear – barreling (no pun intended) headlong into the conclusion yet to come.
The opening scene is a flashback taken from the account of Gandalf titled “The Quest For Erebor” from “Unfinished Tales Of Numenor and Middle Earth”
in which the Grey Wizard first meets Thorin Oakenshield at The Prancing Pony in Bree. Here the plans for the current adventure are laid. Interestingly, Peter Jackson chooses to put the focus on the recovery of the Arkenstone itself rather than the destruction of the dragon as the goal of the quest. The jewel, it seems, best represents Thorin’s birthright to unite the scattered “seven Dwarf families” that can trace their line back to Durin the Deathless.
This tangible object will represent success or failure for Bilbo and the Dwarves. And, rather than being merely an object of greed, the importance of the Arkenstone will likely play out in the final installment next year transforming its significance from that of a typical MacGuffin. For “The Hobbit”
, the Arkenstone almost mirrors what the One Ring was in “The Lord of the Rings”.
Flash forward to where we left off in the first film. The Orcs are looking for the Dwarves under the light of the moon and we are treated to an appearance of a rather large, menacing bear – Beorn in his alternate form. He aids the party in his human persona and leads them to the edge of Mirkwood where Gandalf departs for an undisclosed mission, promising to meet them again at the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo, Thorin and company battle the spiders of Mirkwood, escape the dungeons of the Elf King Thranduil and reach the object of their Quest – Erebor – after a stop at Laketown. All that the reader knows from the book is here in full. The confrontation with the dragon under the mountain ends with Smaug in all his wrath flying furiously at the unsuspecting town of Esgaroth. Fade to black; we will have to wait another year for Fire and Water.
On the whole, the story is adhered to very closely. No major aspect of the book is left out. But the details and additions increase the depth and breadth of this leg of the journey. Some changes are minor but most are so consequential that they require elaboration in the spoiler-filled “What’s New?” section that follows.
As with my last review, I save the spoilers – as they relate to all the changes from book to film – for this section. Jump down to “The Vision” if you want to avoid them. Being released at this busy holiday season you still may not have gotten to the theater.
- First, let’s look at Beorn. The skin-changer’s screen time as a man is very brief and his original introduction to our party of Dwarves is eliminated. Gandalf leads them quickly to his house (to escape from a rampaging Bear Beorn). While one might think that Beorn’s inclusion in the story is only incidental, it’s made clear the depths of his animus towards orcs in general and Azog in particular will provide the necessary motivation for his appearance at the end of the story. His role in the Battle of the Five Armies will probably be enhanced and I expect Beorn to be the one who finally slays Azog.
- As they approach Mirkwood, it appears the Gandalf is fully prepared to accompany them in to the forest. However, a “vision” from Galadriel the discovery of a symbol of Sauron panted on a statue makes him suddenly decide to investigate Dol Guldur further and he departs.
- The Dwarves are attacked by spiders while Bilbo climbs to the tops of the trees to determine which direction they should head and he is able to understand the speech of the spiders only after putting on the Ring. This recalls the part of Return of the King (the book) when Sam is able to understand the Black Speech of the Orcs while wearing the Ring near the tower of Cirith Ungol.
- The “character” of Bilbo’s Ring is enhanced here to better align the continuity of its treatment in “The Lord of the Rings”. In the span of minutes, we see Bilbo consciously lie to Gandalf about its discovery, experience a very quick glimpse of the “Eye” of Sauron (coinciding with Gandalf’s sighting of the painted symbol, and go into full “berserker” mode against a spider when he briefly loses the Ring – protecting his precious, if you will.
- Clearly one of the biggest changes is the appearance of two Elf characters – one existing and one newly created – that are not in the book. Legolas, the son of Thranduil, is ever present and just as bad-ass as we remember him. His being part of the story is perfectly plausible since he could just as easily been among the Elves in Thranduil’s court in the book even if he isn’t mentioned by name. The new Elf – Tauriel – is completely an invention of Philippa Boyens, Jackson’s co-writer, as a way of appealing to the female audience. Tauriel’s ability to almost match Legolas in dispatching Orc heads is remarkable. And Evangeline Lilly (of “Lost"
fame) does a respectable job presenting a female Elf who doesn’t carry the ethereal gravitas of a Noldor Elf like Galadriel. But here’s the real twist (“Twilight” alert!). It appears we have the makings of a kind of interspecies love triangle between her, Legolas and…wait for it…Kili. This one will no doubt have the Tolkien fan boys in an uproar. I’ll explore this issue in greater detail when I revisit the corresponding book chapters.
- Gandalf's investigation begins at the place were the Nazgul were supposedly "entombed" after the fall of Sauron. It's really just an excuse to create a new scene. Personally, I thought it unnecessary and even out of context since the nine Ringwraiths are supposed to be in spirit form - and their "tombs" for their physical being should actually be on the Barrow Downs in Eriador. In any case, apparently it was deemed necessary to portray their summoning by Sauron who now rises in strength.
- As for Sauron, Gandalf does confront him as the Necromancer though the wizard is now quite aware who this mysterious sorcerer is. As a result, like at Orthance, he is imprisoned as he must witness the march of Azog's goblin army upon the Eastern side of Mirkwood. Prior to this, he dispatches Radagast to send a message to Galadriel of his discovery. Does anyone doubt that it will be an army of Noldor Elves that will rescue him. I look forward to their coming battle with Sauron to drive him from Dol Guldur - which happened "off screen" in the book and we only learned of after the fact.
- Bard’s character is much more fully developed here and we are introduced to him earlier than in the original story. However, this may be one of the biggest improvements because it bolsters the sub-plot of his being the heir to Girion, last King of Dale at the time of its destruction by Smaug. In Tolkien's book, Bard’s rise as leader of the Men of Laketown comes fairly quickly and almost solely as a result of his heroics against Smaug. But here we can get a broader development of his legitimacy as he will most certainly more fully embrace the role of “liberator” of his people against the Master of Laketown, who acts as much more of a petty dictator in the film. We have more time to grow to like Bard and appreciate him as a quiet, if reluctant, hero – much in the mold of Aragorn.
- Jackson chooses to end this installment with the cliffhanger of Smaug heading towards Laketown, bent on destruction. So, a climactic scene between the dragon and the Dwarves is created to give us much more Smaug than we expected. In fact Bilbo’s interaction with him upon encountering the golden horde under Erebor is almost entirely without the use of the Ring’s concealment. Bilbo removes it shortly after Smaug confronts him, though throughout the hobbit attempts to avoid him, all the while trying to snag the Arkenstone.
The gang at Weta Workship has done it again.
Unlike the last film, everything we see is new. As we are introduced to the forest of Mirkwood, Jackson does an excellent job of conveying the claustrophobia caused by the rising evil the is emanating from Dol Guldur. The spiders are fearsome but very much inferior to the Shelob we saw in Return of the King.
Also, as alluded to earlier, the action is really expanded here. For example, the escape from the underground Elven realm of Thranduil is no relaxing barrel ride. It is white water rapids all the way, complete with Elves and Orcs in pursuit - Legolas and Tauriel take a lead role here.
So much detail was given to the look and feel of Laketown. One almost forgets that it is built entirely upon water. But the subtle rot of wood and ever present dampness permeates the set. This is not a pleasant place to live and we can see why its inhabitants would so desperately wish to return to a restored Dale at the foot of Erebor.
What can be said of Smaug? Both the voice and motion-capture work of Benedict Cumberbatch give a dimension to the dragon that intensifies the audience’s terror of the beast. The CGI effects as Smaug slithers and slams his way through the treasure looking for the elusive Bilbo are breathtaking.
The experience in IMAX 3D
This was my first time seeing the enhanced frame rate of 48 fps in IMAX. Frankly, it was one of those rare occasions when the extra expense was worth it (“Gravity”, released earlier this autumn, is the other notable exception). It definitely made the experience more immersive though at times I came just short of the occasional motion sickness as the camera spun or dove from above down to the action. I chose this format mostly because the showtime was most convenient. But having experienced it here I think it would be the best version for viewing the Battle of the Five Armies in the next film.
Without a doubt I will be seeing this a second (and perhaps third) time. Once we enter the new year I will return to my original posts for chapters 7 through 12 (chapter 14 has now been moved to the concluding film) and comment very specifically on how Peter Jackson's vision translated book to film.
Until then, have a wonderful Christmas season and a Happy New Year!