‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ (2013): Saved By The Dragon (Review)

Notably imperfect movies like The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug can be hard to critique only if you’re still in an intellectually deliberative stasis while doing it.  I’m not.  There are problems.  Some of them are nitpicks.  Others are much bigger issues, and if they’re enough to collectively kill your enjoyment of the film, I wouldn’t blame or fault you for it.  And I can tell you right now that there’s definitely something in the film that’s going to upset a lot of people (and before you ask – it has nothing to do with fidelity).

In my case, none of the problems in the film (palpable as they are) were enough to keep me from enjoying The Desolation of Smaug in the moment.  It’s a good movie, though not quite good enough to vindicate my trilogy defense argument by itself, and more than a few beats shy of a masterpiece.  I’m obliged to speak more about the problems because…well they sour a little afterwards.  And I’ve learned too much from Man of Steel to think that I can just shrug them off as non-issues because I was swept up in the euphoria.

Following the Thorin-centered prologue in Bree, the story picks up where An Unexpected Journey left us.  Gandalf, Bilbo, Thorin, and the gang are still on the run from Azog the Defiler and his pack.  The film artificially builds its turbo pace with the approach of Durin’s Day, which the first film established as the end-all-be-all moment for the quest.  By the final day of autumn, they must get to the Lonely Mountain and open the secret door into the kingdom of Erebor, wherein the fire drake Smaug awaits.  But their quest receives a new wrinkle when Gandalf leaves them at the entrance of Mirkwood Forest in order to seek further answers on the subject of the Necromancer of Dol Guldur that was also established in the first film.

It was a given that Bilbo was going to take more of a back seat in this film as far as his characterization was concerned.  He’s still the main, but Desolation does very little with him beyond having him mind wrestle against the ring’s allure.  It almost works but it falls short because there’s a scene missing later in the movie (though it’s sure to be in the third one) that would have perfectly illustrated what Jackson was going for.  If you asked me what the difference was between the Bilbo at the beginning and at the end, I can definitely tell you in accordance with the film’s established conditions, but the film misses a critical opportunity to show you.  Those who know the books will better understand what I’m talking about.

The real protagonist is Thorin Oakenshield.  Richard Armitage is as good as he was in the first film, and Thorin has moments that are genuinely interesting, even if some are a little contrived.  When he stands up to Thranduil, he gives him a rage-filled earful that you can tell he’s been waiting decades to say.  Jackson has directed him into the artifice of an anti-Aragorn (film-version).  Thorin shares a bloodline with an ancestry whose fall lied with their hubris and hunger.  But where Aragorn made every effort to excoriate his forebearers until dutifully embracing his cumbersome destiny to save the entire kingdom, Thorin is quicker to dismiss the notion that he might share his grandfather’s vulnerability by pointing out the obvious fact that he is a different person.  It’s a cool idea, and one that I wish was explored as vigorously as the action was.  Sadly, the great moments Thorin has are really just those – moments.

It is discernible why Desolation would have much less character progression and more plot progression, and it doesn’t pretend to do otherwise.  As far as getting places, it succeeds like gangbusters.  It starts from the assumption that AUJ did a good enough job building the lead characters (a fair premise as far as I’m concerned) and presses forward with gusto.  It’s a similar method of pacing as the first, just at triple velocity because it knows you’re there for the dragon.  But its near-abandonment of character makes the overall film feel a lot emptier the closer we get to the end, and it really shouldn’t have.

That lapse and minimization of storytelling is what gets me to what I think is the heart of the problem.  Our characters are not acting; they’re reacting. When you break the story down, it’s actually led by the antagonists – chief among them being the Necromancer, as well as the Master of Laketown.  Yet the film tries to keep the impression that the good guys are still running the whole show.  Bolg enters and switches roles with Azog for some reason.  Gandalf, in a rather out of character move, steers himself solo headfirst into the Necromancer’s trap despite knowing it’s a trap.  The story needs him to be there so it can further raise the stakes for the coming conclusive battle.  It’s again understandable that Jackson wants to make the ultimate climax of The Hobbit less of the accident it was in the book and more of a methodically orchestrated first strike.  Desolation just gets sloppy with the way it goes about it.

Even Bard the Bowman, despite a terrifically unassuming introduction, is trapped in a film where his actions are limited and largely based on the Master of Laketown being a big jerk.  Bard has enough to do in the narrative to give you a good sense of who he is and what his function is, and Luke Evans plays him exceedingly well, but his well-paced arc skids to a halt seemingly prematurely all the same.

However, I hold that none of these problems break the film and what Desolation lacks in substance, it makes up for in style and its zealously adventurous spirit.  The action isn’t just good; it’s insane.  The spider-brawl is fun and over surprisingly fast and the mid-climax battle that makes up Barrels out of Bonds is pure Jacksonian chaos – orchestrated on steroids with unabashed cartoonish glee.  Bombur (the fat dwarf) has a standout moment that almost seems like it was put there to exonerate him for his uselessness in the book.  Legolas is brought in with the intent of having greater Elvish participation in the overall story beyond just being another obstacle in the dwarves’ path, but Desolation does get a little carried away with him.  He goes absolutely bonkers, unremittingly springing into the fray like he’s Kratos.  It’s fun, but it’s the overly indulgent kind of fun, and it could have been dialed back just a bit.  If the Barrels sequence overall was a little less Rambo and a little more Indiana Jones, it would have been perfect.

When it comes to the big picture, Desolation is considerably darker than its predecessor, but the ever-always aware Jackson is trying to balance out that tone by livening up the setpieces.  Tauriel – a Silvan elf – is introduced to add some much-needed estrogen into the mix.  I like her character and Evangeline Lily does a great job.  Ironically, she’s the only one who seems to have any kind of agency as one of the good guys.

As fun as it is – and despite how many of its flaws can be partially excused by its existence as a sequel (I’d be scoring this a lot lower if it was the first entry) – this awkward middle child of a film has vital limbs in the other two.  It’s the least standalone film Jackson has created yet, and it’s missing a lot of the franchise’s heart and soul.  There are no Dwarven songs, and their quaint oafishly festive charm is almost completely omitted.  There are very few memorable helicoptered landscape shots that pass time, and the score by Howard Shore, with one exception, is disappointingly lifeless (though the song at the end is phenomenal).  Desolation is a surface-level thrill – a sugar-rushed lead boot on the highway.

With all that said, at least we get somewhere, and boy is that flying serpent magnificent.  “Inside Information” is the second most important chapter in the entire book and this film nails it just like the last film nailed “Riddles in the Dark.”  All problems with narrative, character progression, and effects notwithstanding, once you see that dragon, you’ll understand what the hurry was all about and that Peter Jackson was born to put him on the big screen.  Smaug is everything you imagined and more: smart, perceptive, witty, majestic, egotistical, and absolutely terrifying in his size, presence, and voice.  He is quite possibly the best dragon ever put to film and that’s in no small part thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch.  However much you may have liked or disliked him and his character in Star Trek Into Darkness, Cumberbatch proves here that he very much is the talent we all believed he could be.

You need to see it for yourself to believe it.  The Desolation of Smaug missed the mark on a lot of elements and I cannot proclaim it to be the astounding success that I wish it was (and that I maintain its predecessor was), but these problems shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the film as you’re watching it.  As a high-octane spectacle of action-adventure in Middle Earth, this film is undeniably fun and I can’t wait for There and Back Again.

The Good: Everything Smaug, the action, the acting, the faster pace, the Necromancer, the general character direction, the buildup to the third, and Ed Sheeran’s I See Fire.
The Bad: Half-hearted and incomplete manifestations of character arcs, a mostly ambivalent score, and a skittering over the outward grandness we’ve come to love about these films.
The Ugly: Forsaken opportunities to dramatically fix those character arcs and too heavily reactionary.

Overall: 8.4/10

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Written By Vivek Subramanyam

Vivek is a handsome, talented, well-spoken political aficionado and part-time film critic who totally never ever writes mini-bios about himself.

Follow him on Twitter @VerverkS or check out his blog V for Verbatim.

  • rich

    this sentence – “Even Bard the Bowman, despite a terrifically unassuming introduction, is trapped in a film where his actions are limited and largely based on the Master of Laketown being a big jerk.” – demonstrates one of your writing qualities, the ability to switch vernacular within one sentence without it feeling forced. to go from “terrifically unassuming introduction” to “big jerk.” well done.

  • Dan O’Neill

    Just a tad bit better than the first, which isn’t really saying all that much to begin with. However, I feel like we’re actually getting somewhere with this story and I hope it all works out perfectly in the next, hopefully last, installment of this already over-long trilogy. Good review Vivek.

  • Ries

    An Unexpected Journey was such rubbish. I would have gone to see this, except I can’t. I wanted to see Smaug. :(

  • Three Rows Back

    Nicely done. Hoping to catch this in the next 24 hours.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Thanks, Rich. I’m glad you liked the writing (mostly). :)

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    It improves a lot compared to the first, but I think the first adds up to a slightly more complete film than this one which is why this one gets the lower score. I fully anticipate (and have complete faith) that Peter Jackson will have everything figured out nicely for the third one. I loved “An Unexpected Journey” and I really like this one too. I just see enough problems to keep it from being brilliant.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    See this when you get the chance. I think you’ll find this one a little more to your liking, at least in some respects. With that said, maybe you’ll have some of the same problems I did with the film and maybe that’ll balance it out. But I am prepared to forever disagree with you on the merits of “An Unexpected Journey.” :)

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Thanks! Enjoy yourself. :)

  • Rodney

    Top review, Vivek – I was hoping you’d be doing the review on this one, and it turns out I was right! While I will have to wait until after Christmas to see it myself, I’m happy that there’s more to do in this film than simply run and chase. Can’t wait to see Smaug!!!

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Thanks, Rodney. Interesting that you were hoping it’d be me. I’m a Tolkien junkie: huge fanboy who loved “An Unexpected Journey” and argued for the necessity of a trilogy. So you’d expect that I’d be going crazy in love for this film. And while I did very much like it, I thought I needed to really get critical with it perhaps just as another demonstration as to how much I love the franchise.

  • http://www.cinekatz.com/ Nick Powell

    Yeah, that review in no way reflects the score you gave it. And I think it’s a bit unfair that you compare it to Man of Steel, yet give it a MUCH larger score.

    But I agree with your point about the actors not acting. The entire film is a reaction, which is funny given that the events taking place in this trilogy cause the reaction that is Lord of the Rings. The movie definitely jumped from point a to point b rather quickly, and I think had we been given a bit more time to think about it, we’d be even more flustered.

    As for Smaug, I agree he’s great, but I’m really pissed that a film that mentions him in the title doesn’t really show him off until the very, very end. Not cool.

    More thoughts to come later…

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    I’m not comparing it to “Man of Steel;” merely my own learning experience from it as a critic. Desolation is far out of MoS’s league.

    I felt that I had to spend more time criticizing the film because…well I’m a critic. It’s kind of what the duty is for this review. I still think that execution-wise, most of it works. The romance got a bit too much screen time, but I still liked it and the function it served was great. Splitting up the dwarves was a stroke of genius. But I wish the fighting at Laketown had more them and less Legolas. The film is laden with these flaws, but in my opinion, only two of them are truly big enough to keep it from being in the low 9s/high 8s. One is the reactionary element, and two is the missing piece regarding Bilbo’s character. The rest are a bit more nitpicky and take away very little from the film overall for me to be upset or even annoyed by them.

    But “There And Back Again” sure as hell has its work cut out for it.

  • Shayan

    I hope the extended edition addresses some of the problems you have mentioned.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    I do too, but I doubt they will. The “missing scene” in Bilbo’s arc is one that I can’t really discuss here due to spoilers but if Jackson did intend on having in “Desolation” then there’s no way he’d have relegated it to the extended cut. It’s too important to the plot. Odds are, Jackson is saving it for the third film, possibly to set up something Bilbo does as kind of a twist. Not sure how I feel about that, having obviously not seen it, but I’m objectively certain that it would have helped the film rather wondrously here.

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