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Review–“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (Fan Review)

Warning:  Complete spoilers follow.

This is the second in a two-part series reviewing the recently released The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug. It is written from a fan’s perspective (of both the original work by Tolkien as well as Jackson’s cinematic adaptations). 

Having been a fan of Tolkien for over half of my life, and a fan of Jackson’s adaptations of that work for over a decade, I was, understandably, quite excited to be going into The Desolation of Smaug.  Unlike many, I was also pleased with An Unexpected Journey and, having seen the follow-up, I am even more pleased with Desolation.  Here are the reasons why (as well as some reflections on the changes Jackson makes).

SMAUG:  His name is right in the title, and deservedly so.  Deliciously and sinuously portrayed by British great Benedict Cumberbatch, this is the dragon that we have all been waiting to see, and fans of Tolkien should not be disappointed.  This is the cunning, cruel, yet fascinatingly charismatic drake that we have been waiting for these many years, and he well lives up to the many appellations that Bilbo (perhaps facetiously) bestows on him during their famous battle of wits in the halls of Erebor.  Nor is Smaug a slouch in the action department, for he shows, frequently, that he has the brawn to back up the brains.  Sure, some of the action between him and the Dwarves may be a little overdone, but if you’re going to invest a ton of time and money into making a CGI dragon, you have to give him something to do.  And let’s face it, the scene where he shakes off the molten gold like so many droplets of water and takes to the air to rain down fire and death on Laketown, is going to go down as one of the most visually stunning moments in cinematic adaptations of Tolkien.

Likewise, the duel between Gandalf and the Necromancer is both terrifying and visually electrifying.  If anything justified the price of a 3-D IMAX ticket, this was definitely it.  While some have complained that Gandalf’s use of force violates his mandate from the Valar not to use force to combat Sauron, I prefer to think of his use not as an attempt to overcome Sauron, but to force him to reveal himself for who he truly is.  Gandalf goes into Dol Guldur fully knowing that he is entering a trap, but his whole point is to force the Necromancer’s hand, so that he can in turn convince the White Council (particularly the recalcitrant Saurman) to finally make a move against him.  The only way to do so is to make sure that he feels threatened enough to reveal himself in all of his dark and terrible might, as well as to unleash the legions that he has summoned to his cause (although it is never explicitly stated in either of Tolkien’s original works that Sauron in his guise as the Necromancer was responsible for the Orcs moving against the Dwarves, it is suggested several times that most of the evil in Middle-earth is either explicitly or implicitly linked to Sauron’s desires and/or influence.  I therefore see no problem with Jackson making this more explicit for the film’s purposes).

I also really appreciated the new shadings of character that we see given to the Elves, particularly the trio of Thranduil, Tauriel, and Legolas.  To me, Thranduil is exactly as Tolkien portrayed him:  gifted with a measure of the wisdom of the High Elves, but still not as great nor as far-seeing as most of his brethren.  Thus his obvious desire for a share of the treasure of Erebor (which is reflected in the novel, as well), and his (very Elvisih) desire to protect his homeland, even if it means sacrificing the rest of the outside world to its fate.  For his part, Legolas already shows signs of the independent spirit that will lead him to be more farsighted and altruistic than his father.  And finally, and I know I may not be in the majority on this one, but I found Tauriel to be very captivating.  She does not quite have the ethereal quality of Arwen (and why would she?)  What she lacks in wisdom, however, she makes up for in her fiery spirit and her desire to reach out to the outside world.  I’m very interested to see what directions her character takes in the final film.

All in all, I think this film is a stirring second chapter, and it points out why a trilogy was, in fact, needed to provide a certain contingent of Tolkien fans with a fully-fleshed-out vision of Tolkien’s narrative.  It is also worth noting that, while some of the events depicted in the films take place (sometimes hundreds) of years before the actual story of The Hobbit, it makes sense filmically to have them take place now.  Thus, we see the corruption of Mirkwood taking place during the timespan of An Unexpected Journey and Gandalf’s discovery of the Necromancer’s true identity in Desolation in the filmic present because otherwise we would either not get to see them or they would have to be told in extensive flashbacks.  The latter worked in Fellowship because it was fairly brief and because it served as background, while in this new trilogy it is one of the fully-explored narrative arcs.  Since I have always wanted to see the White Council and its actions against the Necromancer depicted in an adaptation of The Hobbit, I am quite elated to see them so powerfully brought to visual life.

Does The Desolation of Smaug make some substantial changes to the source text?  Absolutely.  But the bare bones of the original story are still there and, for the most part, the changes make logical narrative sense.  Does it replay some of the same scenes and emotions from The Lord of the Rings?  Again, the answer is yes.  But we would do well to remember that Tolkien himself did something similar, except in a reverse order.  One need look only at the basic narrative structure of the two novels to see their similarities.  Besides which, the controversy-laden relationship between Tauriel and Kili, while seemingly very similar to that of Aragon and Arwen will, it can be hoped, not end in the same way.  Indeed, Kili’s imminent death in There and Back Again will, as a result of his romance, be at the level of tragedy and pathos that we saw in The Lord of the Rings.  At least, that’s my prediction.  We’ll have to wait until next December to see if I’m right.

That’s all for now.  I’m sure I’ll have more reflections on the film as I see it several more times (which we all know is inevitable).

Review–“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

Warning:  Spoilers follow.

Note:  I am preparing two reviews, one for casual fans of the films, and the other for Tolkien fans.  This is the general review.  The Tolkien fan review will be forthcoming.

Well, I was one of those fortunate enough to see The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug on opening night (in 3-D IMAX, no less), and I was, quite simply, blown away.  This film is miles beyond the first (which I liked by the way), and serves as both a fitting adaptation of Tolkien’s work and a thrilling lead-up into what promises to be an earth-shattering finale.

If the first film felt like a bit of a slog for some, they will find their fears addressed in this film and, hopefully, put to rest.  Once Desolation has hold of you, it does not let go until the very last moment.  There were even several moments where I as a viewer felt we could have lingered a little longer, to give us a sense of depth to those particular moments that seemed to cry out for it.  And I am not just referring to the numerous fight scenes–although those are well worth the viewing experience and the extra price for the 3-D ticket–but also to the politics and the scheming that go on behind the scenes.

Indeed, is precisely these politics and schemes that give us a sense of the “so what” that the film did not quite accomplish as well as it might have.  With Gandalf’s discovery of the true might of the Necromancer, as well as Smaug’s taunting of Bilbo with a threatened darkness that will cover the land, we at last get a feeling that the stakes with the Dwarves overthrowing Smaug are greater than just the recovery of some treasure.  With Desolation, we finally get a sense of the great currents that constantly move just under the surface of the novel.  We now have the knowledge that Sauron is moving and, while he may not yet have the full strength to cover all of the land with his Shadow, the film suggests that he is going to try to make a good start of it with the Dwarves.  This is not yet the full-fledged Sauron of The Lord of the Rings, but he is still a power to be dealt with, and the titanic showdown between him and the White Council will certainly be one of the high points of the final film in the trilogy.

Of course, one of the greatest highlights of this film stems from the stellar performances offered up by its enormously talented cast.  Ian McKellen continues to shine as Gandalf (will anyone ever be able to do that role again?  Probably not).  Newcomer Lee Pace–who had a brief cameo in the flashback that opened the last film–is simply delightful as the cunning yet surprisingly noble-seeming Thranduil, Evangeline Lilly is fiery and feisty as soon-to-be-fan-favourite Tauriel, Richard Armitage continues to grab the right mix of asshole and hero and, last but not least, Martin Freeman, though often shuffled to the side, continues to be the best Bilbo you could ever ask for.  If nothing else saved this film, the acting alone would be able to pull it off.  He brings the perfect blend of humility and humour to this role and is perhaps the best conveyor of the unique amalgam of properties that make hobbits in general such compelling literary figures (although he might be tied with Ian Holm for this particular honour).

When it comes to characters, however, one creature in this film threatens to drown everything in his shadow.  Yes, that is the dragon Smaug.  Jackson and his team, along with the enormously talented Benedict Cumberbatch, have managed to bring to stunning and immortal life one of the greatest and most compelling of all literary dragons.  Cumberbatch manages to capture all of the elements of Smaug that make him such a riveting character:  unabashed arrogance, a deep-running cruelty, and a serpentine cleverness that makes him more dangerous than any foe the Company has yet faced.  When we see him fly off toward Laketown at the end of the film, and hear Bilbo’s breathless, “What have we done?”  we in the audience can’t help but shiver with anticipation for the fiery ruin that the vengeful beast will rain down upon the unsuspecting villagers.

One of the most powerful and compelling scenes, and indeed one that made the entire film worth it, was the titanic battle between Gandalf and the Necromancer.  In this scene, we get all of the things that make Jackson such an eminently suitable person to bring this story to the big screen.  We get to see Gandalf’s courage and willingness to go into the very heart of the darkness in his never-ending quest to aid Middle-earth, while also seeing the true extent of the evil against which he is matched.  Here, more than perhaps anywhere else so far in these films, we get a glimpse of not only how powerful a being Gandalf is beneath all of the grey robes, but also how great is the evil against which he has been matched.  Along with Bilbo, the Gandalf of this film shows us just how hard it is to be a hero, to face almost certain destruction and yet do so anyway, with the knowledge that one’s actions may be for the betterment of countless others.  Once again, Gandalf manages to steal our hearts (and this is in no small part due to the magnetism of McKellen).

There are so many more things I could praise in this film, but I hope that this review gives a sense of just how impressed I was, not just as a fan of Tolkien and of Jackson’s vision, but also of film in general.  While this film never reaches quite the heights of operatic grandeur of its predecessor, it still manages to capture the breadth and scope of the vision that Tolkien offered to his readers, while also offering an action adventure story as good as or better than anything else currently on offer.  There is a depth and power here that will leave viewers beginning for the concluding entry in this stupendous trilogy.