The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
based on The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
There was never any chance that a The Hobbit film coming from the production team behind Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings was ever going to be as sweet, comedic, self-contained, and child-friendly as J. R. R. Tolkien’s first novel. Even Tolkien was tempted to rewrite The Hobbit to match the high, historical tones of his greatest work, but he eventually abandoned that project. The original plan seemed, if a little bit of a stretch, at least quite of a piece with the original trilogy: two films telling not only the story of the Quest for Erebor, but also the work of the White Council that sets the board for The Lord of the Rings. But stretching that out into three films teasing the three hour mark (to set aside the inevitable extended editions)? Well, we’ve seen how that turned out in An Unexpected Journey—an ultimately mixed film suffering from too much CGI, tonal issues, and a bloated script, but with flashes of brilliance.
Mercifully, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug improves on its predecessor, although that’s a bit of a low bar. Most importantly, the tone has stabilized into something grippingly dark in the grand tradition of second installments in film trilogies. It’s not perfect, of course—there are one or two moments of gross-out humor that fail to amuse, and I was reminded just how violent a PG-13 movie can be in the United States as long as the bloodiest it gets is a little elven nosebleed. (Heads were flying, y’all.) But, for the most part, it holds together, managing encompass the beginning of Thorin’s gold madness, the depressing state of Laketown, and even tender moments snatched here and there. There are less out and out jokes, which I think wasn’t totally necessary, but it still maintains a certain puckish humor that lies pretty firmly on the shoulders of Freeman’s Bilbo and Nesbitt’s Bofur.
But The Desolation of Smaug brings up a new problem—an overwhelming nostalgia for the original trilogy. An Unexpected Journey did have an unnecessary flashback involving Frodo, but most of the continuity nods were subtle. Here, through, lines and situations are quoted liberally throughout with about a fifty percent success rate. For instance, it’s a good nod that only experienced healers realize the value of kingsfoil, and it’s funny to see Legolas scoff at the baby picture of his future best friend. But having Balin (lovely, warm, diplomatic Balin) pull the “courage of hobbits” line on Bilbo is just puzzling, since Bilbo is the only hobbit Balin knows. Gandalf’s subplot starts off setting the board for The Lord of the Rings elegantly and then… well, it goes too fast for my taste. Some of it does land, but the ones that don’t just feel like the film is asking me to remember something I really, really love in order to forgive the faults before my eyes. And that’s not how anyone really consumes media.
What’s most surprising about The Desolation of Smaug is how much it willfully deviates from the book. This isn’t new to Jackson’s Middle-Earth; there are some who may never forgive him for having Faramir being tempted by the Ring on the silver screen. But here, it’s a result of the fact that there’s just not that much original plot to go around, so Jackson does what he does best: crafting action sequences. After all, the exhilarating Bridge of Khazad-dûm sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring was a single line in the script. While the mid-aughts video game-esque CGI does hurt them, they’re quite engaging. They do take over the film a little bit, but given that they’re the only reason the film hits its trilogy standard running time, I can almost forgive that.
The actual new plot we get is quite welcome. Luke Evans makes a wonderfully gruff and Welsh Bard, a man ashamed of his family (remember that Girion, his ancestor, failed to kill Smaug), and the downtrodden, almost dystopian atmosphere of Laketown is a nice riff on the aftermath of Smaug’s destruction of Dale. Laketown is also pretty diverse (extras-wise) for Middle-Earth, reflecting its former glory as a major center of trade in the North. Smaug is a gorgeous, glorious red nightmare; Cumberbatch is as well-suited to the role as you imagined, with a design that made me think of his interesting incarnation in the 1977 animated adaptation, although only in the face. But the most interesting and most polarizing addition is Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel.
I adored Tauriel, who enters the picture as a redheaded hurricane and ends up being the moral compass for the film. With Gandalf off on his own subplot and the Company dealing with Thorin’s increasing instability, there’s no one left in canon to look at the larger picture with compassion. And that is what Tauriel is for, and everything she does is connected to that. When she realizes that her king, whom she’s worked all her life to impress despite being a “lowly sylvan elf”, would rather wall up in his kingdom than help others, she leaves. When she’s faced with the choice to continue killing goblins for sport or saving a dwarf’s life, she saves the dwarf’s life. That dwarf, of course, is Kíli, which brings us to the awkward love triangle.
On the one hand, I’m not exactly thrilled that the only lead female in the movie has to be involved in a love triangle, and an elf/dwarf relationship of any kind does make Legolas and Gimli’s friendship less impressive. On the other hand, it’s downplayed (hilariously, Tauriel only looks uncomfortable when informed of anyone’s attraction to her), it’s not the only thing that motivates her, and the relationship between Tauriel and Kíli is actually very sweet. The scene in which they discuss their cultures’ different views on starlight is just lovely, because it shows two people from antagonistic cultures really seeing each other as whole beings for the first time. While their relationship shades romantic on Kili’s side, it’s much more about friendship and loyalty than instant love. Kíli is part of Tauriel’s motivation, but that’s because she’s motivated by her newfound compassion for all people. You know, like Wonder Woman. We’ll see how it progresses, but I am very much on Team Tauriel. (I am also still on the good crack ship Tauriel/Lindir. C’mon, it’d be perfect. She’s rebellious! He’s fussy!) There’s plenty more to say about Tauriel, but I’ll refer you to the Mary Sue.
Bottom line: The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug improves upon its predecessor with a much more cohesive tone, some classic Peter Jackson action sequences, and the wonderful additions of Smaug and Tauriel. But its overwhelming nostalgia for the original trilogy is very, very grating.
I saw this film in theaters.