Viewed as the extended second act of the larger three-act epic that will be The Hobbit trilogy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is terrific, a dazzling, endlessly inventive adventure serial that is filled to burst with cinematic treats both large and small. Never anything less than intensely entertaining, and absent nearly every pacing issue that left its predecessor, An Unexpected Journey, a solid but uneven disappointment, Smaug is a treat, and will be a welcome breath of fresh air for fans of Peter Jackson’s cinematic Middle Earth.
Taken as a film, however – as the standalone, 161-minute entity that audiences will be watching this weekend – I find The Desolation of Smaug highly problematic, if not downright infuriating. With a cliffhanger ending that cuts things off mid-climax, the film is incomplete, a series of extremely tantalizing set-ups that has only the slightest of internal pay-offs, if even that. No matter how spectacular the material it presents may be, Smaug is all rising action in search of a meaningful culmination, and by withholding that pay-off from viewers and leaving all our investment unfulfilled, Jackson has severely lessened the potential impact of this individual chapter.
The crazy thing is that this is a problem I have only because of the standard Jackson himself set for how to do multi-part film epics. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a major cinematic masterpiece for many reasons, but one of the things that has always impressed me most about the films are that, for all the cumulative impact they create, each chapter works wonderfully as a standalone entity. The Fellowship of the Ring, while planting the seeds for the entire trilogy, plays host to a contained and emotionally impactful arc. You don’t need to wait for films two or three to start seeing the character relationships and narrative hooks pay off – by the time Gandalf is facing down the Balrog, or Aragorn is choosing to let Frodo go in favor of saving Merry and Pippin, or Sam is risking his life to accompany Frodo on the rest of the journey, the audience’s investment is being rewarded, and it is being rewarded in such a way that when the credits roll, the viewer feels extremely satisfied.
The same thing goes for The Two Towers, which not only has a different visual and tonal flavor than its predecessor, further distinguishing itself as a workable standalone entry, but which tells a great beginning-middle-end story about an imperilled nation (Rohan) finding strength and redemption (and if the arc of the Frodo and Sam narrative isn’t quite as clear, it still has a climax and resolution that leaves the viewer feeling something big has been accomplished, and that these characters have been developed a great deal). Even last year’s An Unexpected Journey, for all its problems, builds to a moment of sincere and effective resolution that pays off on certain internal character and thematic strands.
But The Desolation of Smaug does not and cannot effectively operate as its own, fully satisfying experience. I love that the film is in near-constant motion, continuously deepening, developing, and enriching the characters, story, and mythology, but just as Jackson is about to tighten the strings, just as all of the disparate plot and character threads are about to cumulate, the film ends, not with a sensation of invigoration or satisfaction, but of violent, uncomfortable whiplash. It would be like if The Two Towers ended with the first arrow being loosed at Helm’s Deep – everything that came before that point would still be terrific, but without the immediate internal context of resolution and pay-off that the battle itself provides, that material would fail to resonate as much as it should, and the experience on the whole would be frustrating and unfulfilling.
That is The Desolation of Smaug in a nutshell – I love everything we have been given, and yet my love is severely tempered by the film’s failure to pay-off on my emotional investment. That pay-off shall, of course, come, but it’s going to arrive separated from the immediate, fresh context of this foundational material (and I cannot imagine the aborted climax of this film serving well as the opening scene of the next one – that just seems incredibly strange). Especially considering that much of the film’s last hour is devoted to positioning certain characters for actions that seem meant to take place in their very next scene, and not in a completely separate film, the abrupt end is maddeningly jarring, and limits my affection for The Desolation of Smaug as its own film.
But again, that I had become so utterly invested as to be disappointed speaks extremely well to everything Jackson and company had accomplished up to that point. After a really wonderful prologue scene, one that I shall not spoil here other than to say it is a warm and fantastic re-introduction into this story, the film picks up where An Unexpected Journey left off, with the company of Thorin Oakenshield well on their way to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor. The film then proceeds through what is probably my favorite stretch of material in J.R.R. Tolkein’s original novel: The meeting with Beorn, the adventures in Mirkwood, the arrival at Laketown, and, of course, the encounter with Smaug. The film’s pace isn’t quite relentless – nor should it be, as this succession of events could easily be dramatized so as to make it exhausting, rather than invigorating – but never once does it lag, and more importantly, every piece of the film moves with purpose. Even if that purpose is not fully realized by film’s end, there is true weight and significance to everything that happens in Smaug, with Jackson and company constantly relishing the opportunity to deepen these characters and enrich the fabric of their world – the overt prequel material with the Necromancer and Middle Earth’s ‘rising evil’ has become much more intriguing than I had previously believed possible, for instance – even as they effectively up the adventure ante at each and every turn.
And what adventures these are! Faced in this stretch of story with some of the most memorable and iconic moments from Tolkien’s entire body of work, Jackson creatively expands upon the core of Tolkien’s writing to build multiple set pieces that are nearly unparalleled in their creativity and execution. I imagine the “Barrels out of Bond” sequence – which transforms Bilbo’s clever smuggling of the dwarves from Thranduil’s castle into an ingeniously multifaceted, gleefully orchestrated action symphony – is going to be celebrated and discussed ad naseum after the film’s release, but for my money, I was even more blown away by the strategic grandeur of the company’s climactic battle with Smaug, and most deeply shaken by the episode with the giant spiders in Mirkwood. I find the spiders material effectively unsettling even to this day in Tolkien’s book, and Jackson emulates that feeling nicely, putting his cinematic horror skills to great use throughout the encounter. Even more impressive, though, is the way he weaves character development in among the action during this sequence. It is something both of the film’s other major set pieces manage as well, but in the way Jackson shoots and edits Bilbo’s fight with the spiders – and especially in the way he visually illustrates what it is like for Bilbo to hunt his enemies while wearing the ring – an enormous amount is conveyed about Bilbo’s growing heroism, as well as his nascent dark side. There is something deeply, irrevocably disturbing about Bilbo’s actions here, something thoughtful and provocative that is conveyed in harmony with the choreography of the action.
While I wish I could say the spiders episode is also indicative of how well the film does by Bilbo throughout, The Desolation of Smaug unfortunately minimizes the character just as much as the previous film, if not more so. In my review of An Unexpected Journey, I expressed the feeling that the film had expanded Tolkien’s narrative to such an extreme degree that Bilbo was lost in the shuffle, only a supporting character in his own movie, and that the film lacked a concrete, focused center as a result. The Desolation of Smaug is undoubtedly more centered – as mentioned before, it constantly moves with purpose, and the plot, character, and thematic threads all seem much more united this time around – but it still keeps Bilbo on the sidelines more than I would like. After the early goings on in Mirkwood, Bilbo is a very minor character in this film – even his meeting with Smaug, while beautifully realized, fails to fully re-orient him to the center of the action – which, as in the last film, is a shame precisely because of how terrific Martin Freeman is in the part, and how perfect the movie seems to be when he is front and center. I think I just have to accept that Jackson and company have chosen to interpret The Hobbit as an ensemble piece, rather than one where Bilbo is the center – if he can’t feel like the main character in this stretch of the story, where he and his arc are arguably most vivid and prominent in the book, then he probably never will – and while that’s not an interpretation I agree with or necessarily like, it is one I can live with, especially when the material around Bilbo is as excellent as it is here.
Case in point: Tauriel, a new Elvish character created for the film, who has absolutely nothing to do with Bilbo and is nevertheless one of the most compelling elements of the picture. Thanks to sharp writing and a stupendous, charismatic performance from Evangeline Lilly – who emerges from the film as perhaps its most obvious future movie star – Tauriel and her material is simply dynamite, a worthwhile expansion of Tolkien’s book that not only breaths new life into the story, but increases my investment in the characters she interacts with. Orlando Bloom does great work in his return as Legolas with or without Tauriel, but both he and the character are at their best opposite Lilly, while an unexpected romance between Tauriel and the dwarf Kili – something I would never have believed could work – is surprisingly effective, and does some crucial work in fleshing out Kili as a three-dimensional character (important, given what role book fans will know he plays in the story’s conclusion).
But if Tauriel is the best example of Jackson effectively extending the Hobbit story beyond Bilbo Baggins, she is far from the only one. Further exploration of Thranduil and the world of the wood elves? Great stuff. Gandalf’s solo mission to explore the depths of Dol Guldur? Fantastic. Lake Town politics? Not entirely successful, but interesting nevertheless, and important because it is building to something that will come back to effect Bilbo and the dwarves heavily. The film cuts away to the Orcs and their machinations far too often for my liking – I would rather see none of them whatsoever outside of encounters with the protagonists, and not just because Azog continues to be an awful and poorly realized character design – but overall, this is an extremely rich film, one where nearly every plot and character strand is enjoyable, intriguing, and imaginative. It is absolutely invigorating when Jackson starts pulling all these different threads together in the last forty-five minutes, turning the introduction of Smaug into the centerpiece for everything to coalesce around, and while this only increases my frustration with the ending – we cut to black right as everything is about to click into place – the effect is still somewhat awe-inspiring.
Smaug himself, it must be said, is one of the film’s foremost achievements, a transcendent combination of vocal performance, character design, motion capture, and special effects that is every bit on par with Andy Serkis’ Gollum. Benedict Cumberbatch’s vocal performance is a terrifying wonder to behold, grand and booming in tenor but nuanced and intimidating in detail, and I love how much both he and the screenplay emphasize the character’s formidable intelligence. Bilbo has been pretty well established as one of the cleverer figures in the cinematic Middle Earth canon by the time he comes face to face with Smaug in this film, but the Hobbit is perilously out of his depth once Smaug awakens from his slumber, and it is Smaug’s wit, more than his brawn, that puts Bilbo on the disadvantage.
That’s not to say Smaug isn’t physically imposing, of course – in fact, to say so is an understatement. While I was both surprised and pleased to see how much Smaug’s face looks exactly as I’ve always imagined it – Jackson and his team have clearly based their design on Alan Lee’s illustrations, and maybe even the Rankin Bass TV movie – the sheer size and scale of his body is a major shock, and is played as one in his introduction. Smaug’s first scene – including his initial interactions with Bilbo – is undoubtedly one of the best sequences in any Middle Earth film, perfectly constructed to establish Smaug as a tremendous, multi-faceted terror.
The film does well by all its new characters, though, in keeping with what is perhaps this franchise’s greatest strength. Lee Evans’ Thranduil is a different kind of Elvish ruler than we have seen before, and while the character is still being sketched in, I am eager to see more. Luke Evans immediately makes an impression as Bard – Jackson is waiting to call him “the Bowmen,” as the character’s arc has been adjusted in interesting ways – and while his performance is one of the many highlights of this film, I can easily imagine him being a top-level standout in There and Back Again, where Bard’s role in the story gets even meatier and more complex. And while I’m still not sure how I feel about the film’s conception of Beorn, which is extremely different from how I have always interpreted the character, I like Mikael Persbrandt in the role, and am interested to see how (or if) they use him in the future.
The returning players are all uniformly strong, with top-notch work from Freeman, Ian McKellan, and especially Richard Armitage, whose Thorin only gets increasingly fascinating and compelling with each passing minute. The film explores him as both an inspiring, effective leader and a figure whose potential for recklessness and greed – something he tries, but continually fails, not to succumb to – is damning, and Armitage’s work is amazingly complex and nuanced. Thorin is, in truth, the protagonist here, and while I feel that’s a miscalibration of Tolkien’s story, it is hard to complain when the character is this captivating. As for Thorin’s kinsmen, I am still pretty blown away by the work Jackson and his performers have done turning the other twelve dwarfs, little more than a series of silly rhyming names in Tolkien’s book, into distinct and loveable characters.
The film’s technical merits are second-to-none, as expected, with terrific production design, excellent and evocative cinematography from Andrew Lesnie, and another instant-classic Howard Shore musical score, one that, like the film itself, is far richer and much more satisfying than its predecessor. I still find myself a bit disappointed by how little location shooting The Hobbit films employ – The Lord of the Rings felt so immediate and organic because New Zealand was their primary landscape, while The Hobbit movies are mostly created on soundstages – but this is still a tremendous exercise in world building nevertheless. I did not, for the record, have the chance to see the film in its native 48 frames-per-second – a shame, as multiple viewings of An Unexpected Journey had me really liking the new format – but it was screened in 3D, which is mostly shallow and useless. If you don’t plan on seeing the film in high-frame-rate projection, see it in 2D – on its own, the 3D is a wash.
Two films in, and the verdict is still out for me on Peter Jackson’s grand Hobbit experiment. If it weren’t for that needlessly abrupt ending – which I find doubly frustrating given that, in the book, the specific climax this film was building towards is mere seconds away from happening – I think I would be prepared to call The Desolation of Smaug a great or near-great film, which is exactly what I hoped I could say about An Unexpected Journey a year ago. I find myself again unable to dole out the praise I so desperately want to give, and that frustration is compounded by the fact that my intense love for the majority of the film directly fuels my anger over the unfulfilling ending. Jackson himself set the standard that, no matter how sprawling the narrative, individual parts of a trilogy still need to work on their own narrative and thematic merits. For all the ways The Desolation of Smaug is a massive leap forward from its predecessor, and a real, substantive standout of modern blockbuster filmmaking, it is ultimately a structural regression, feeling even less complete than other recent multi-part film installments like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (which at least had the decency to resolve its own climax before cutting off mid-story).
Will any of this matter once There and Back Again has arrived in theatres next December, and one can comfortably sit down to watch all three Hobbit films in a row? That I cannot say – though I think it still might, given my belief that certain pieces of pay-off belonged in the arc of this specific film – and it is always possible that whatever Jackson has planned for the third film is so brilliant and inspired that it somehow required this second film to end the way it does. I am willing to hold out hope, and no matter what, I think the pieces are undoubtedly in place for a terrific final chapter. But in this moment, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is very difficult to view or to take on its own terms. It is a hugely enjoyable two-and-a-half hours of cinema, an endlessly fun and creative bit of fantasy mythmaking, but it does not work as its own film, and as much as I love everything it has to offer, I very much wish the finished product felt like a more complete cinematic experience.