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Non-Review Review: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug represents a considerable improvement on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Some of the same problems still lurk at the edge of the frame: the pacing needs a bit of work; the movie is about half-an-hour too long; it feels a little too consciously like one extended prelude to The Lord of the Rings. And yet, despite all these flaws, The Desolation of Smaug accomplishes a lot of what it sets out to do.

This is very clearly the same Middle Earth that viewers remember from The Lord of the Rings. Even the least obsessive viewer will still recognise the occasional familiar landmark or setting from the early film. It’s not just the New Zealand locations that shine through; great care has been taken to establish a geography of this fictional landscape. Viewers who have yet to memorise the names and routes on Tolkien’s meticulously-prepared maps can see that this is the same world.

It’s just being seen from a different perspective. The Hobbit isn’t really an adaptation of that much-loved adventure tale, at least not exclusively. It is instead being crafted as a companion piece, with the heroes’ quest providing a handy travelogue of a world in turmoil.

The gold standard?

The gold standard?

Quite a few of the story beats in The Desolation of Smaug will feel familiar. There’s forbidden love between a warrior and an ageless elf. There are heirs seeking to redeem themselves and reclaim the honour of their forefathers in a great conflict of our time. There are distractions that keep Gandalf from making our heroes’ quest too easy. There are corrupt city officials blinded to the true scale of calamity that befalls them.

However, despite all these similarities, The Desolation of Smaug feels distinct enough to stand on its own two feet. It helps that the scales are decidedly smaller here – at least on the surface. Our disgraced rogue is not the serious and righteous Aragorn, but a working-class smuggler and boatsman Bard who lives with the shame of his ancestor’s failure. Luke Evans plays Bard as a man without airs and graces, a man who would never be king or anything so bold – his rough accent shines through and he’s a man of cunning rather than strength. The best that Bard could ever be is a man who fires a rather large crossbow; we can’t all be kings.

Evans help us...

Evans help us…

Similarly, Thorin’s grand quest is to see himself crowned “king of the mountain.” It’s a title that means the world to him, but you get a sense that everybody else could really care less. Nobody sees Thorin as a rightfully deposed king who will bring peace and justice to the kingdom; the woodland elves and the people of Laketown only offer Thorin support in return for material gain. The elves want a few gems from a gigantic treasure; the people of Laketown simply want to be a stop on Thorin’s export route.

Even the corruption that threatens Laketown is a decidedly banal form of evil. There’s no manipulative servant of Sauron whispering in the ear of an enchanted king here. Instead there’s a local “master” who lives in constant fear that the people of Laketown might decide to hold free and fair elections that would see him put out of the cushy little niche he’s carved out for himself in the quiet and defeated little community.

A wizard did it...

A wizard did it…

The primary characters of The Desolation of Smaug aren’t playing for high stakes, at least not in the grand scheme of things. Gandalf has his eye on a much greater contest that looms on the horizon, and he is clearly manoeuvring all the pieces into place to help score decisive victories in a war that has yet to be fought. This makes The Hobbit, for all that it is three over-extended movies with an incredibly expansive focus, a decidedly intimate affair.

We know that a larger conflict for all of Middle Earth looms on the horizon, and the decisions made here will inevitably play into that. However, there’s something fascinating in watching characters who aren’t quite aware of the stakes of the game they have joined. The Desolation of Smaug is much more interesting when focused on the little people involved in the plot. There’s considerable time taken to offer some measure of characterisation for the members of Thorin’s party. We don’t get a sense of each an every member’s personality, but they each have more distinctive voice than they did in An Unexpected Journey.

A straight arrow...

A straight arrow…

Shifting the focus of the story on to Thorin is a clever choice. The Hobbit is a much-loved novel, and well-read one. At the same time, the audience for the feature films is a lot broader. And so taking the focus off Bilbo is a clever way of investing some measure of suspense in the film. Everybody knows that Bilbo survives, because he pops up in The Lord of the Rings. Even if you don’t remember him, there’s a rather clumsy opening flash-forward at the start of An Unexpected Journey that assures the viewer that at least one cast member of this prequel will survive.

Pushing Thorin to the fore allows for a bit more suspense. His fate is not yet assured, so The Hobbit can wring some measure of doubt about the fate of the dwarf who would be king. It’s more than simply getting the audience worried about what might happen to the character. Bilbo’s character arc is preordained; The Lord of the Rings is based around the fact that Bilbo got home with the ring in his pocket. Thorin’s character arc is new to anybody who hasn’t read the book recently.

Here there be dragons...

Here there be dragons…

Peter Jackson rather cleverly plays up the infamous parallels between Tolkien’s work and the Second World War. Tolkien himself vigourously denied any conscious link between that epic war and the event portrayed in The Lord of the Rings, but it’s hard not to let the defining historical event of the twentieth century colour the defining fantasy saga of the twentieth century, whether consciously intended or not.

After all, any story about the epic conflict between good and evil for the fate of the world can’t help but evoke the popular narrative of the Second World War. (Even if there’s a convincing argument to be made that Tolkien was just as inspired by his experiences in the First World War as what was unfolding in Europe when he wrote The Lord of the Rings.) Jackson cleverly doesn’t fight these obvious parallels in the narrative, and consciously invites the viewer to form their own connections.

A character orc...

A character orc…

Once again, like An Unexpected Journey, the script plays up the similarities between the dwarves and various Jewish stereotypes. The Iron Mountain is repeatedly referred to as their “homeland”, an aspirational destination for a people who have lost their way, wandering through the world as the dispossessed. They are also the victims of prejudice, with avarice and greed presented as a defining stereotype of the dwarvish people. However, The Desolation of Smaug plays up another aspect of the Jewish experience.

Describing the suffering inflicted upon them, the dwarves talk about the “inferno”, and we’re invited to think of all those dwarves burning alive while their murderer basks in their material wealth. The parallels to the suffering of the Jewish people during the Second World War are striking; a suffering that the rest of the world often wilfully ignored, just as the people of Middle Earth ignore the suffering of the dwarves. As Thorin and his warriors investigate what remains of the once proud dwarvish city, they discover bodies of women and children left to rot – underscoring the horror of this atrocity.

Nobody elf to rely on...

Nobody elf to rely on…

The Second World War plays into The Desolation of Smaug in a number of other ways – most of which fixated around Smaug himself. More than just a greedy dragon lurking in the darkness, Smaug is a convenient stand-in for the horrors of warfare. “My teeth are swords,” he boasts as he stalks Bilbo. “My claws are spears.” More than that, though, Smaug is a stand-in for a particular kind of warfare. He’s heavily implied to be a much-sought-after weapon in this grand conflict playing out between good and evil, a weapon that would “demolish all that lays before it.”

Smaug seems to stand for the horrors of nuclear war. As he prepares to unleash his rage, he brags, “I am fire. I am death.” It can’t help but evoke Oppenheimer’s rather chilling thoughts as the first atomic bomb exploded. It’s telling that the first sight of Smaug’s devastating attack – Dale – remains as a burnt-out landmark, a cautionary tale of that “firestorm” unleashed upon an unwitting civilian population. (Indeed, the design of Dale, with its domed towers, can’t help but evoke the UNESCO World Heritage site at Hiroshima.)

Thorin's problems are dwarved by the larger issues at play...

Thorin’s problems are dwarved by the larger issues at play…

As such, Jackson manages to give The Desolation of Smaug some rather weighty undertones. The stakes here are never quite as serious as they are in The Lord of the Rings, but Jackson is inviting us to watch that conflict brew. Nothing happens in isolation; this rather small quest featuring Bilbo Baggins is part of a much larger tapestry than it might first appear. To Thorin and Bilbo, Smaug is just a greedy dragon who sleeps under a mountain of gold. However, Jackson couches him skilfully in imagery that suggests he is so much more.

Which brings us to the biggest problem with The Desolation of Smaug. It excels at threading the epic and the impossible through the ordinary and the low-key. However, it struggles a bit with the larger and more important plot elements. An Unexpected Journey over-burdened itself with cameos in order to reassure the audience that it was definitely set in the same world as The Lord of the RingsThe Desolation of Smaug is much more confident in itself, but it still struggles a bit with Gandalf himself.

Over hill and Dale...

Over hill and Dale…

Gandalf’s plot feels a little too forced in its attempt to connect to The Lord of the Rings, and it presents the root of some of the film’s pacing problems. Most obviously, Gandalf’s plot reaches its climax long before any of the other threads running through The Desolation of Smaug, creating the impression that even the script isn’t sure how to properly integrate Gandalf’s investigations with everything else going on around it. Still, it’s not a fatal flaw.

It’s worth pointing out that the production design on The Desolation of Smaug is superb, just like all the other films in the cycle. Middle Earth feels meticulously and painstakingly designed, and there’s a sense that the sandbox is almost endlessly deep – that there’s so much history and world crammed into the landscape that it’s impossible to see absolutely everything. There are also some wonderful choices from Jackson as well; I particularly like the reveal of what the “eye” of Sauron actually is – a rather beautiful piece of design work executed superbly.

A sting in the tale...

A sting in the tale…

The episodic structure of The Desolation of Smaug allows Jackson to really cut loose. Here, at least, the extended nature of the film is a benefit to the director; it often feels like we’re watching an omnibus edition of a half-hour television show about Bilbo. The movie moves effortlessly from giant man-eating spiders to barrel chases and dungeon escapes without missing a beat, and the movie’s runtime allows Jackson to have a little fun with these bits – thanks to the film’s luxurious pacing, there’s no rush to make everything fit in a two-hour film.

While this isn’t necessarily ideal in the context of the whole film, it allows Jackson free rein with his individual set pieces. In particular, the barrel chase is a spectacular action sequence, elegantly and carefully choreographed, playing out like something of a live Looney Tunes cartoon. Which is really where Jackson’s strengths as a director lie, and it’s part of what helps The Desolation of Smaug move so quickly.

The Desolation of Smaug isn’t perfect. It’s more than a bit over-long in places. At the same time, it is skilfully executed and carried off with enough craft that it’s hard to resist. A much stronger film than An Unexpected Journey, it’s well worth a look this Christmas.

15 Responses

  1. Well. At least it’s better than the last. Hopefully I have the same experience.

  2. It’s a great review that you have written… I have enjoyed reading it thoroughly. The intricacies that you have talked about and the parallels that you have drawn elevate your review to the ranks of an essay. Congratulations for the same!!!

    P.S. I write at a movie blog called A Potpourri of Vestiges. Please do take some time out to explore it… here’s the link:


  3. I was just thinking this morning, “who’s our Ebert equivalent today?” And lo and behold, I read this review. Great write up Darren. Hands down, best one I’ve read on this movie yet.

    • You flatter me, Zoe. That’s an incredibly sweet thing to say, and I wish that I could come close to measuring up to Ebert. To say that he is an inspiration can’t do the man justice. I have his “Great Movies” on my bedside locker.

      I’m humbled to be even mentioned in that sentence, but I’m sure I’m a long way off. Though I will aspire to some day be worthy. Thanks again.

  4. Excellent review.

    I’m surprised given the mention of class that you didn’t mention Tauriel. Canon foreigner though she is I find she is quite fascinating because she is something we have never seen before; an Elf commoner. Not only that but she is the only significant female character at all in the franchise who doesn’t come from the elite – even Éowyn is a princess.

    • Good spot, Ross! And very well-observed.

      Sorry, I sort of splurged on the post, trying to get everything down on digital paper before sleep and work. I also, it appears, didn’t get around to contrasting Laketown and Helm’s Deep, which is another wonderful juxtaposition of the two trilogies. Both second movies climax in a battle between Orcs and rogue elves/dwarves; The Two Towers features gigantic armies classing over a massive fortress, while The Desolation of Smaug features a back alley brawl in a forgotten little hamlet.

      I may need to revise the post, actually.

  5. Great review, I had a brilliant time watching this film 😀

    Its still a bit too long but if I had to stay in any imaginary world middle earth isn’t too bad ;D

    Smaug stole the show and I am glad he did, great visuals and just an all over better film than the first hobbit, hope the trend continues into part 3 😀

  6. Brilliant review. I’ve read many but yours is certainly the most insightful of any. The parallels you draw between WWII and the plot of the film are both original and irrefutable. Tolkien’s dreadful experience in WWI are often discussed, but he lived through WWII, in fact taking a break from completing LORT of the rings till it ended. I would argue that both wars informed the creation of both works, just as both wars were really one war, with just a brief cessation of armed struggle in the interim. I have never had the pleasure of reading one of your reviews, and though you do merit comparison to Ebert, I’d say your critical capacities and style is closer to David Thomson, the late great essayist on film and the author of the highly opinionated but always engrossing A Biographical Encyclopedia of Film.

  7. I completely disagree it’s a worse movie than first part by a mile. It’s stuffed with even more mindless action and endless chase scenes with so ridiculous things that my suspense of disbelief gave up early. All main characters were butchered, taken to extreme or flanderized (Thranduil was unnecessary villainized for example). The presence of Tauriel is completely pointless she has nothing to offer to the plot and is too ,,mary sue’ish” to the point that she was one of the most annoying characters (just like Radagast), just like in first movie this one makes the same mistake: the trials the heroes face are so over the top that seem like cartoonish elements. Humour is cheap (or lacking) in completely bad taste. Some dialogues seem wooden, there are too many freakish elements that I asked myself wtf? in some moments (like this thing with elvenking’s face, what was that all about?!!), the movie is so filled with orcs that it’s tiring to watch them (they should be more effective villains and real menace not cartoon-like enemies killed in hundreds for the rule of cool). I have nothing against expanding the book with material from appendices of Lotr adding the White Council and Necromancer but this what they made is simply rubbish there were so many ways to make this subplot interesting but it was ruined. The changes which PJ made are worthless, his skills as storyteller are non-existant, he deemed he could improve Tolkien storyline and in effect destroyed the coherent plot. Also shifting the focus from Bilbo is a bad idea, he is the main character whose actions will have repercussions in his world, his character developpment we are supposed to observe changing from lazy hobbit to real brave adventurer.

    • Also constant references to Lotr films are annoying after a while, we get this Jackson this is a prequel, now get over it and start making sense not to copy the plot elements!!!!

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