“What have we done?”
If you’re filmmaker Peter Jackson, you’ve just created the second chapter of The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, one of his greatest career accomplishments in film thus far. Mighty praise. But that’s what this movie is: mighty. Mighty, indeed!
“What have we done?”
These are also the final words of dialogue in the film, plaintively whispered by Bilbo Baggins as Lake Town, the economically ruined trading port near the base of the Lonely Mountain, faces its certain doom. It’s a hell of an ending for a middle chapter in a beloved story that many thought only had enough material for one film – certainly not three.
But that’s the magic of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – a film where more is most certainly more.
Last month, I purchased the extended Blu-Ray version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a film I adored in the cinema. (You can read my review of that particular movie, published one year ago, right here and a second review by Biff Bam Pop’s Emily McGuiness, right here.) The extended edition, with all of its various cut footage scenes, did the same for An Unexpected Journey as the extended editions did for the three The Lord of the Rings films: they really allowed the movie to breathe, to flesh out sub plots, characterizations and machinations that were only alluded to in the theatrical versions. In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, these extended scenes brilliantly capture the underpinning political intrigues that link this series of films with The Lord of the Rings. Galdalf truly is the protector of Middle Earth. His cunning and his foresight is made most evident and it’s these scenes, missing form the cinematic release, that lead us to the more major but less overt themes in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
In a flashback sequence, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens in Bree, the journeyman town that we first saw in The Fellowship of the Ring. In fact, the first figure we notice is that of a drunken inhabitant, burping and sloppily exiting a tavern. Well, that’s Bree, after all, and the drunk man is, in fact, director Peter Jackson, in homage to the same scene and character he played in the Fellowship film. The bar called The Prancing Pony is full of revellers and ne’er-do-wells and it’s here that Thorin Oakenshield (the brilliant Richard Armitage) meets with Gandalf (the magical Ian McKellen) for the first time, where the wizard places the idea of the reclamation of the homeland of Erebor in the Dwarf’s mind. Gandalf, you see, is worried about the rise of evil in the land, and that the most powerful of evils might seek to return and employ Smaug the Dragon in its thirst for power. Wizard manoeuvrings and allusions to future-set films at work! It’s fun for those that know, sure, but it’s also a promise to cinemagoers that in this movie, there will be nods (and more than just nods) to situations and characters that you know from The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, is a tying agent for all of these Tolkien films.
This strategy is echoed in a tense scene involving Thranduil (Lee Pace), the King of the Mirkwood Elves and father of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) – who not only makes an appearance in this film but also has a sizable role, indeed. In the questioning of an orc prisoner, the two elves learn of the larger threat to their land. Pace portrays Thranduil as different to all the elves we’ve already experienced in Jackson’s series of films: insular and certainly immoveable, he’s also treacherous. “Never trust an elf,” Gimli said in The Fellowship of the Ring. Thranduil is why he said it.
Beyond linkages to other films in the series, there are fantastic character moments of absolutely wonderful performances by the ensemble cast.
One of the most moving sequences involves the Chief of the Guard, the she-elf, Tauriel, played stunningly well by the beautiful Evangeline Lilly. I wasn’t entirely sure of her casting, but the moment she enters the film, all doubts of her ability are immediately dispersed and she makes the character of the battling Mirkwood elf entirely her own. Lilly absolutely belongs in this world. Together with imprisoned Dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner), the two actors share a lingering moment of affection for one another, a brief respite form the action and mounting threat in the film. It becomes a very tender and memorable scene.
Luke Evans plays the aggrieved and pained Bard the Bowman, a sort of altruistic protector to the people of Lake Town. Although he may seem a little one-note, there is depth to the character and Evan’s portrayal of Bard is unquestionably one of the more likeable and impressive roles in the film series. His intensity comes from a place of leadership and clarity and care for the people of his homeland. I look forward to seeing more from him in the third film next year.
Martin Freeman, playing Bilbo Baggins, is again amazing in his performance. Bilbo grows in this film: against the spiders in their nest, he’s a warrior – and we see the origins and naming of his “letter-opener” sword, Sting. It’s a fantastic sequence, action-packed and absolutely creepy. If you’re not a fan of spiders, keep your hands free so you can cover your eyes! There is one moment, here, however, when we see Bilbo begin to slip under the control of the one ring. It’s harrowing as the hobbit gathers himself, almost in tears, knowing but not quite understanding the power that the ring is beginning to have over him. Freeman is at his best here, as he is in a moment when discussing his “change” to Gandalf.
It makes one think of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, and all that he had to endure in order to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom.
The greatest strength of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is undoubtedly the pacing. At over two hours and forty minutes in length, never once did the film feel long. Sure, you’ll wonder if the filmmakers have enough time to show the final battle of Smaug the Dragon (spoiler: they don’t), but you won’t be yawning or secretly hoping for scenes to move forward faster – and I must admit, I did have that sense from time to time while watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Scenes move briskly with meaning. The action sequences are a marvel. The barrel ride and battle down the forest river are some of the most exhilarating action sequences you’ll ever see. They had the audience hooting and hollering and laughing the entire time. What a ride!
And let me say that Smaug the Dragon, voiced to perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch, is the most amazing portrayal of an enormous fire-breathing lizard you have ever seen. This Smaug will be, not only for dragons depicted on screen, but for all future special effect sequences, the de-facto measuring stick for the terms “eye-popping” and “astonishing”. We waited so long to see this usurping, serpentine “King Under the Mountain” and we are not left disappointed or unimpressed. In all his terror and glory, he is truly magnificent to behold!
If there’s one weakness to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, it’s in the actual source material: there are so many characters, even in just the band of Dwarves, that we want – but can’t get enough – characterization for each of them. Also, it’s difficult to enjoy these films as single entities as they unabashedly link to so many others. That said, for those that thought The Hobbit only had enough material for one film, Jackson has proved them wrong. But even with the abrupt ending here – and it is very abrupt, applause rang out in the theatre I was in. Everyone, from kids to adults, thoroughly enjoyed it and can’t wait to see the third and final instalment of The Hobbit trilogy next year.
“What have we done?”
There’s so much to talk about in regards to this film. The filmmakers have created an unrivalled love for the current movie whilst cultivating high anticipation for another, one year from now.
Movie making is magic. And The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second part of the trilogy, is the very product of that hard work and visualization: something memorable and moving and worth sharing with friends and loved ones.
All should see it.