Editor Note: Our next review comes from long time collaborator and friend of TheOneRing.net, David Baxter. David has been involved in some manner with TheOneRing.net since the early 2000s, and is a staple at events in California. Being that he is 6’8″ – he makes a really impressive Gandalf too!
Let me get this out of the way, I did not go into the screening of The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug expecting to see all or even many of the events I’d pictured in my head after reading JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and seeing the Rankin & Bass animated version in 1977 (dating myself here). It was impossible after seeing Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Too much of that film had been devoted to setting up or showing events that were never shown in Tolkien’s work and were only mentioned in the appendices of The Return of the King.
I knew walking in that this was PETER JACKSON’S The Hobbit and my review will be on the strengths and weaknesses of DOS as a filmed entertainment and the second in the trilogy of prequels to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. In fact, this film may be quite divisive for the Tolkien purists, who, if they were hoping for a course correction from the first film towards a more faithful/literal adaptation, will inevitably be disappointed.
All this having been said, I really found myself taken on a wild ride through Jackson’s version of Middle Earth and ended up enjoying myself a lot. I want to see it again…very soon. There is so much visual detail in the film that it begs for multiple viewings and because it is not hindered by the lengthy set up of the first film or by a long recap at its introduction it sets a fast pace that quickens throughout and keeps the stakes rising as we follow not only Bilbo (Martin Freeman) but all the members of the company, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and some new characters, most especially, the elf warrior maid Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and the bowman Bard of Laketown (Luke Evans). The acting is consistently excellent throughout; especially Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman, who give subtle and moving performances as they each battle with dark forces from within.
SPOILER FREE SECTION IS NOW OVER.
Rather than recap each scene of the film, I’m going to touch on the places where I was especially drawn in or pulled out of the story, if you want to be surprised I would advise you see the film first (based on my general reaction to it) and then see if you agree with the points I make. I’ll actually use the titles from the music soundtrack to break these points down.
THE QUEST FOR EREBOR. Gandalf’s meeting with Thorin at the Prancing Pony in Bree was cool. We quickly learn that Gandalf wants Thorin to lead the remaining Dwarven armies to remove the dragon Smaug but to do this he will need the Arkenstone to legitimize his rule and to get that from Smaug’s hoard they will need… a burgler. I had hoped that we might get some exposition or flashback about how Gandalf encountered Thorin’s father (so Gandalf could obtain the map and key to Erebor) here but it never came.
THE HOUSE OF BEORN. The visuals for Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) as monster-sized bear and his amazing home were great but we didn’t get to spend nearly enough time with this fascinating character well played by Persbrandt. Once Beorn gives the company some ponies they are off to Mirkwood. I’m betting we will get more Beorn in the extended version.
MIRKWOOD. Jackson’s hallucinatory oppressive forest gives you claustrophobia…in a good way. Bilbo’s tree climb above the forest canopy, breathing in the clean air along with thousands of butterflies was truly beautiful moment.
FLIES AND SPIDERS. So cool that when Bilbo puts on his ring (which he doesn’t seem to like to do ala Frodo) he can hear the Spiders speak. Super creepy. Very nice action beat where Bilbo dispatches a spider and names his sword Sting.
After Bilbo rescues the dwarves from the spiders, I felt the Dwarves recovered a bit too easily and brought the fight to the spiders in a way that didn’t fit with what they just went through. Loved the rescue and introduction of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel. The action sequences in this film are through the roof. Jackson’s camera can travel anywhere in a digital environment and it does. Kudos to Andy Serkis and his excellent second unit directing!
THE WOODLAND REALM. The halls of the Elven King are beautifully realized. Lee Pace is perfect casting as Thranduil. Haughty and arrogant but still he offers a pretty good deal to Thorin, who seems already on the road to madness in his response.
FEAST OF STARLIGHT. Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel share a nice moment while he is imprisoned and it’s clear that Kili is smitten with this tough elf warrior maid. Purists may be horrified but I get the sense that a lot of emotion will come of this relationship. A nice addition to the story from a filmgoer’s perspective.
BARRELS OUT OF BOND. Bilbo seems to figure out how to get the Dwarves out a bit too fast, I suspect there may be longer sequences in the extended addition, but it moves us quickly into a great action sequence. Freeman as Bilbo has a very funny moment here when he realizes he’s got the dwarves out of the Elves stronghold but not himself.
THE FOREST RIVER. By far the best action sequence in the film. You have elf/orc/dwarf action that is furious and fast but still seems more plausible than the sequence from An Unexpected Journey in Goblin Town. Bombur (Stephan Hunter) steals the whole scene in a sequence that had our audience of school children screaming with laughter. This is worth the price of admission.
BARD, A MAN OF LAKE TOWN – Luke Evens gives a solid performance for Bard, and establishes him as the rebel of Lake Town. Once he sneaks the dwarves into town he seems to remember a dire prediction that feels a bit too heavy on the foreshadowing but understandable. Lake town looks wonderful but the sleazy Master (Stephen Fry) and his lackey (Ryan Gage) Alfrid’s extreme distrust to downright hate of Bard doesn’t seem adequately motivated in this cut. Perhaps the extended edition will soften this bump.
THE HIGH FELLS. The Dol Guldur sequence is quite creepy and it seems like Gandalf has really bitten off more than he can chew. We really get a strong link to the overall LOTR trilogy here and establish what really at stake beyond the dwarves wanting their gold back from a dragon. This parallels the Gandalf/Balrog confrontation from FOTR quite nicely. Great voice work on the Necromancer from Benedict Cumberbatch.
ON THE DOORSTEP. Martin Freeman gets a nice moment to save the day and find the keyhole. This is one of many scenes where the events of the book are subtly changed in order to up the drama of the moment. I think it works wonderfully.
KINGSFOIL. Back in Lake Town, Bard is being chased by the Master’s men while Kili is dying, sick from a poisoned orc arrow. James Nesbit as Bofur gets a chance to shine here as he tracks down the Kingsfoil needed to stop the poison while at the same time an elite squad of orcs is hunting the dwarves. We get a spectacular close quarters action sequence with Tauriel and Legolas defending the remaining dwarves and Bard’s family. This sequence isn’t in The Hobbit book at all, but I don’t care, it’s really cool. If nothing else, I think that this film will get people to actually read the book and enjoy it on its own terms, and that’s a good thing.
A LIAR AND A THIEF. Here we finally get the reveal of Smaug and it doesn’t disappoint, except a niggling point that Smaug doesn’t have arms in the front as Tolkien has drawn him in his own illustrations. He’s more like a huge bat with claws on his wings. Benedict Cumberbatch is absolutely spot on in his portrayal of the beast and his chemistry with Martin Freeman is palpable. This really brought the iconic scene from the book to life.
The next sequence deviates a great deal from the book but is very action packed as the dragon attempts to roast Bilbo and the dwarves. I was only taken out of the moment when Smaug mentions Thorin by his last name Oakenshield. There isn’t really any way that Smaug should know Thorin by that name, so it felt inconsistent. Not a huge deal but I’m a stickler for correct world building. Also, Thorin’s attempt to stop the dragon seemed a bit ill informed since fire breathing dragons would naturally seem to be rather immune to the effects of heat but trying to drown Smaug in a river of gold at least looked visually cool.
I had anticipated that Smaug would survive the end of the film, so having the vile worm fly off to incinerate Lake Town seemed a good point to end things. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, overall, succeeds in what every good fantasy film should do, never bore the audience, keep us on the edge of our seats every so often and take us to world filled with wonder and horror! I can’t wait to see it again!
Treebeard (David Baxter)