I am pleased and not pleased.
The Desolation of Smaug brings with it exciting action scenes, a likable heroine who doesn’t go out of her way to emphasize her femininity, the series’ typically gorgeous environments, and fine sound work. It also brings forgettable music, major story issues, and an unwelcome cliffhanger. Thankfully the good outweighs the bad, but the particular kinds of problems that exist in this movie are enough to make me concerned about the conclusion of The Hobbit story.
It definitely starts off nicely, though.
The film opens with a rainy prologue scene showing the Dwarf Thorin Oakenshield in the Prancing Pony inn in Bree-town. When some shady and imposing individuals approach him menacingly, the film acts like it’s going to launch into a Witcher-esque tavern fight, which doesn’t end up happening. Instead, Thorin is warned of a threat on his life, by a person the audience should remember as a friend …
Fast forward many months later, and Thorin and the other Dwarves are continuing their quest toward the Lonely Mountain, where they plan to find treasure, kill the town-destroying dragon Smaug, and take back the land they claim by right. It isn’t long before their immediate priority becomes escaping from a gigantic bear.
There’s more to said bear than is immediately obvious, since he is a “skin-changer,” a human that sometimes shapeshifts. It’s a neat if rather unusual concept in a setting where magic, even war magic, isn’t necessarily all that common, especially not with something like transformation. More tellingly, this person–whose allegiances toward the protagonists can be as unpredictable as his form–doesn’t really play a big role in the story, serving to get the “heroes” from one part of the early plot to the next.
That being stated, one of The Desolation of Smaug’s best design decisions is that unlike 2012′s An Unexpected Journey, the energetic opening scene isn’t an excuse for the plot and action to slow down for an hour. The actual story early on in Smaug is rather flimsy, with large chunks of the movie consisting of random but really good-looking action sequences. One of those sequences finds major success in taking one of The Return of the King’s most memorable “monster scenes”–and replicating it many times over. At the risk of giving a mild spoiler, people who do not like spiders, especially giant spiders and lots of them, might actually do well to avoid this film.
Friends, foes, fun, and foibles
After getting through a creepy-looking forest, “The Hobbit” Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves find themselves essentially under arrest by a group of Elves, including the familiar Legolas and the story newcomer Tauriel. Legolas demonstrates much more of a personality than he did in The Lord of the Rings films, and while it’s an elitist personality that has no issues looking down on Dwarves, it still gives him an identity, even if the result isn’t particularly endearing. The lady Elf Tauriel is competent at everything she does, from ranged and melee fighting to nursing a wound, but in fairness she does prove herself to be legitimately likable thanks to her trying to turn Legolas and the other Elves from their isolationist ways. (There’s an unfortunate and pointless hint of a romantic subplot set up between her and Legolas that may as well have had only one line of dialogue before being dropped for the rest of the film.)
There’s a basic story involving Orcs and danger, but it’s really just an excuse for some fun and lengthy fights, one of which becomes increasingly ridiculous and hilarious as a Dwarf in a barrel bounces on top of numerous Orcs before popping his limbs and weapons out of the barrel’s side to cause even more damage. The cartoonish song-and-dance numbers found early in the first Hobbit film have been replaced with cartoonish battle antics in the second, but at least the movie knows for the most part how to have fun. The actual barrel ride, which goes down a river, looks like a competent amusement-park attraction, and there’s a lot of interesting comedy among the Dwarves, even as the violence itself is rather intense in a bizarrely entertaining fashion.
Leading up to this, however, the story’s ethical problems begin to manifest during an Elven escape scene, as the Dwarves are placed under arrest because one of the Elves had his rather reasonable you-help-me-I-help-you offer refused. Remember how, in The Lord of the Rings movies, the Ring of Power created by the evil Sauron was so capable of corrupting and twisting its user that no one except the Ring’s maker was able to control it, not even for the most noble purposes? Early on in the film, Bilbo does exactly that, using the Ring to steal a set of keys and break the Dwarves out. Even if it makes the Elves angry, he does so without incurring any of the sort of consequence that The Lord of the Rings films ran on.
Gandalf also returns, as does Radagast from the previous Hobbit movie, but there’s no bunny sled. Radagast’s appearance feels so insignificant as to almost be a cameo, while Gandalf is trying to solve a mystery involving a necromancer, which is brought up without really being delivered upon or made to have much effect on the plot.
From one place and problem to another
While the story can be commended for not being fragmented or difficult to follow, there’s really not much to it; the story at this point has decided to become an epic quest while at the same time seeming to run at least in part on the first film’s style of direction, which could sometimes be intentionally aimless, as an adventure for its own sake. The Dwarves, whom I prefer to look at as being one complex character instead of many simplistic ones (they rarely receive story or personality development as individuals and aren’t often even addressed by name), arrive with Bilbo at a place called Lake-town.
Lake-town is gorgeous, but not everything it brings is welcome: there’s an unpleasant and weak pair of subplots involving a prophecy and a peasant rebellion in the making. The first doesn’t feel necessary to the plot, and the second, while interesting, doesn’t fell well used at all. The bigger problem, however, is that at one point the Dwarves refuse various weapons they are given and actively try to steal from the city itself. This contemptible act is likewise given so little attention that it could easily have been dropped.
The town is caught in the difficult point of being a means to an end for Thorin’s and company’s quest, or being a place with its own legitimate needs and goals. There are some neat action sequences that come later in the film, with Orcs invading one family’s home, causing a child to attempt to hide in panic. Thorin and company don’t heavily get involved in Lake-town’s economic struggles, though for all of the story’s internal confusion, there is a kindhearted scene where one of the Dwarves must be left behind from the quest toward the Lonely Mountain due to serious injury, and several others stay behind with him.
To Erebor, and Smaug, and whatever lies beyond
The quest is most interesting when its participants actually fail and have to make a legitimate effort in order to solve a problem. At one point Bilbo finds his moment of glory in a film partially named for him, and seeing as he’s the group’s “burglar,” he is sent in to retrieve an important artifact hidden in a very well-guarded lair. Yes, alone.
The gigantic red dragon Smaug is absolutely incredible, and he easily carries this movie to whatever greatness it achieves on his own wings. Whereas other scenes in the film toy with imaginary languages without receiving benefit from them–Elves and Orcs often talk among one another in their own tongues, resulting in my looking at subtitles when I should be looking at the environments or at characters emoting, and one scene of Elven healing becomes an unfortunate source of comedy– Smaug speaks in regular English and does it extremely well. His booming voice fills his lair, and it’s easy to gauge his extreme confidence and even a little sarcasm when I don’t have to read the bottom of the movie screen in order to be able to understand what he’s saying.
Bilbo should have taken lessons from Viserys Targaryen on not waking dragons, but that’s precisely what ends up happening. Funnily, Smaug sees through essentially every crafty trick Bilbo and the Dwaves try to play on him, deconstructing the film’s own ethical problems in the process: the “hero” tries to lie about his identity? Smaug sees right through it! The “hero” tries to steal a piece of gold? Smaug sees right through it! The “hero” tries to use forbidden and evil magic to conceal his location? Smaug smells, hears, and even feels right through it! The “hero” is to some extent a means to an end in his own story? Smaug actively mentions this! If not for the dragon being a murderer and bragging about it, it’d be difficult to tell who the real “villain” in this film is supposed to be, because few of the main characters other than Gandalf and Tauriel are particularly admirable.
The Dwarves redeem themselves when they work together to activate huge underground forges as part of a plan to defeat Smaug, which could have been an interesting display of individual Dwarves’ special abilities working in conjunction but is fun enough to watch as is. The last scene is highly amusing, but the way the movie ends is … well, it doesn’t. Peter Jackson closes the film on one of the biggest cliffhangers I’ve ever seen in a movie, complete with some of the biggest groans I’ve ever heard from an audience. It really is a disappointing way to end the story, not because of any lack of potential but because of so many plot threads left unresolved. Gandalf discovers a old enemy who gets to do little else but walk forward menacingly (which is still an amazing and horrific-looking effect). What next? What will happen between Legolas and Tauriel? What about the injured Dwarf, or the economic fate of Lake-town, or the city’s other problems? The film’s ending issues come largely from it simply not trying to answer very many of its core questions, and I wouldn’t have minded the movie having an extra twenty minutes of running time in order to justify its admittedly entertaining existence.
Conclusion: I see fire
And I did indeed. The Desolation of Smaug relies on spectacle at the expense of its story, but the spectacle in itself is especially well done. The film looks as beautiful as any of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth films ever had, and the set pieces are consistently exciting. One of this movie’s biggest problems is that it has very little of a moral compass. Bilbo and the Dwarves repeatedly get away with deeds that can’t and shouldn’t be called heroic but are excused for reasons that don’t make any actual sense. The story doesn’t even try to feel complete: while I was able to excuse the summer film Star Trek Into Darkness of the criticisms I heard others raise against it, I was able to do so for one very important reason: I really liked the film’s message and what it was attempting to say, whether the execution completely succeeded or not. This movie doesn’t get that credit, and while it is indeed a load of fun and is indeed still worth seeing for the spectacle and for Smaug, I don’t know whether those things will vindicate this film in the long run or what the complete lack of plot resolution implies for the final part of The Hobbit series.
New character Tauriel is a bright spot in the film: she proves herself capable of accomplishing great deeds without demanding attention or reward for them, which I really respect, and she’s able to go from being kindhearted to being rather fierce depending on the situation. She generally does do the right thing, which is more than I can say for this film’s main protagonists at times, and she’s interesting enough where I legitimately regret that she wasn’t in the original story.
Smaug is the film’s biggest victory, which is a problem in a story that’s supposed to make heroism look good, but out of all the characters in the film, only Tauriel comes close to being as well written or worth devoting attention to in terms of her personality and not her circumstances. I’m looking forward to seeing how Legolas and the other Elves come to be the people they are at the time of the original Lord of the Rings films–it will be nice if Tauriel continues to be a stabilizing influence on him in the way that the Black Widow was in Marvel’s Avengers movie–and I still want to see how Bilbo’s and the Dwarves’ quest will end, even as some parts are already heavily implied thanks to this being a prequel story. I do think the often antagonistic characterization given to individuals and groups who didn’t formerly have those personalities may be an issue, however. See the film, and enjoy it, but remember the story’s roots.
This article was originally written and published on my movie review blog, Projected Realities.