D.M. Haight

Children’s books are often, in our times, adapted with an air of simplicity. It’s refreshing to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug not fall into the simplicity and irritating childishness. Films are just like our books in their cultural and social purpose. They serve as stories to teach us in some respects, and they serve as a piece of our history. These narratives, especially those of Tolkien, have shaped a great deal of our culture. We talk of Orcs and Elves and Dragons and Kings and Queens and Goblins and Trolls and every other type of magical creature from our distant past, and we have the ability to bring them alive through cinema. Children’s books are left in the dirt with their downplayed narratives and useless plots in film. They have a remarkable skill for taking any joy we might have derived from the pages and leaving it vacant on the screen. The second venture into The Hobbit Trilogy was saved from that murder by relinquishing fear of the macabre and great adventure, and allowing it to transpire with all the giant spiders and talking dragons it was meant to have.

Martin Freeman returns to the role of Bilbo Baggins, but The Desolation of Smaug is hardly about the hobbit. Bilbo has his heroic moments, and he does a fair bit of adventuring in the two and a half hour movie, but this is a story about a different character of a different race. This is the story of Thorin. Reprised by Richard Armitage, the would-be King of the Dwarves leads his men into the chasms of the Misty Mountain, through the Dark Forests and helps them battle giant spiders and Orcs along the way. Armitage does more revealing work with Thorin in this second installment than he was capable of doing in the first. The only issues that stem from the Dwarf come from his apparent dislike of Bilbo once again, even after the first film’s realization that the hobbit was indeed a priceless asset to his band of misfit Dwarves, Hobbits, and Wizards. It doesn’t make enough sense to warrant the hostility, leaving me wondering if Jackson forgot that previously resolved subplot, or if he ignored it altogether. The second issue stems from the Lake-town of Esgaroth. Thorin becomes a bigshot rather quickly after coming out in the open and revealing his identity. The people of the town fawn over him after he promises riches untold. The gripe I have with this scene comes from the camera work, which happens to point out how much more miniscule Thorin is to the humans of the town. Surely there was a purpose to pointing out that he was a dwarf, more so than Gimli was in the original trilogy; but if there is a purpose, I find that it hurts the scene and Thorin as a character, especially if he’s having his ego stroked by the townsfolk.

It is very easy to tell that this is not The Lord of the Rings we’ve all come to expect from Jackson. Smaug is children’s story adapted to film and it is noticeable. The crass humor may not sit well with those expecting epic battles, great speeches, and dramatic action. It’s highly kinetic and mostly lowbrow. Jackson has crafted a film that many may not fully appreciate for many years. We’re all stuck in the mindset that this prequel will be the epic story before the epic story, when in actuality it is a hodgepodge of different stories thrown into a pot called The Hobbit. When we realize this, then we might have a greater understanding why certain things are the way they are. We have a Necromancer wandering about, we have a dragon hoarding all sorts of goodies, and we’ve got a couple of wizards out doing some things; so all in all it’s not the book we’ve read, and it’s not even really the plural of that either.

Benedict Cumberbatch has completed some incredible voice work for Smaug, the last great dragon. His smoky voice, mingled with gruff and a rasp make for a perfect coupling with the ancient fire breather. The character design for Smaug was one of the many highlights of the film, and the lair in which we see the beast is so golden you can feel the heat emanating from look alone. Smaug’s ancient look, rocky and jagged, create a realism that can easily be lost in a film layered in CGI (ala Azog, who looks more fake than the raptors in Jurassic Park). Cumberbatch brings the dragon to life in the best possible way, and almost single-handedly makes the film worth seeing in theaters.

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