The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Review)

“If this is to end in fire, then we will all burn together!”

Those in-your-face “Top Ten Movies of the Year” lists being featured in different movie websites and magazines have a major adjustment to make. The Desolation of Smaug is here, after all.

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If I were to write a one-sentence review of the film, it would go like this: “With mind-bending action sequences complemented by astonishingly beautiful visuals, the second episode of The Hobbit series comes as a desirable successor to one of the best fantasy films ever made”. But a one-sentence review would hardly to justice to the movie, would it?

When I watched the first film in the trilogy about a year ago, I thought it was an absolutely smashing beginning to the trilogy. But it also set a sky-high bar for the next film. You know, that’s the problem with filming a series – if you make a great movie, you have to exceed or at least match the quality of the predecessor.  As a “linking” or “bridging” film, it wasn’t going to be easy for the Desolation of Smaug, anyway, Peter Jackson’s efficiency notwithstanding. I was still pretty sure that he would pull it off, though.

Oh he did, all right. And that is not terribly surprising to me, really. I expected nothing less from him.

What I did not expect was that he would make Tauriel, an entirely new character which wasn’t in the book, fit in so beautifully with the rest. But more on the that later.

Whilst the first film in the trilogy had an arch, adventurous tone, The Desolation of Smaug drops you right into the midst of action. Well, after a bit of flashback in the town of Bree which demonstrates the inception of Thorin’s company and which serves no purpose that I could see.

The grandfatherly squint
The grandfatherly squint

As the company of Thorin Oakenshield continues its legendary quest to reclaim Erebor from Smaug at the Lonely Mountain, they are attacked by Beorn, a skin-changer, in his huge bear-form. They take shelter in a nearby house which, they come to know, is Beorn’s own abode. As he shifts back into his human form, which according to Gandalf “can be reasoned with”, he expresses his hatred towards Dwarves (the race). But apparently his hatred of Orcs far overpowers with that of Dwarves and he lends them his horses and secures their passage to Mirkwood. Gandalf takes their leave to investigate the Dol Guldur thing. He being a wizard with his mysteriousness and everything.

In Mirkwood the heroes are “saved” by Silvan Elves from Giant Spiders. Saved and then taken prisoner. Bilbo, of course, proves elusive yet again because of the Ring. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) enters the scene in style, as the crowd bellows in recognition and then joy. He instantly displays his aversion for Dwarves and, more particularly, Thorin by nocking an arrow, pointing and warning:

“Do not think I won’t kill you, dwarf!”

With Legolas arrives Tauriel, played by the Lost actress Evangeline Lilly. Tauriel is the head of guards in Thranduil’s (Legolas’ father and king of the Silvan Elves) household. To be frank, I loved her. Evangeline’s work was pretty impressive. Her character didn’t feel redundant or superfluous to me at any point in the film like she did to many reviewers. And this is coming from a long-time Tolkien/Middle-earth fanatic. As a matter of fact, she harmonises neatly with her quintessential Elf-look.

Moreover, she also acts as a pretty effective counterpoint to Legolas’s disdain towards Dwarves and his ignorance for the burgeoning war (The War of the Ring). Another reason I liked Jackson’s decision of including her was the absence of a notable female character in the original plotline. If my memory serves well, there was hardly any female character in The Hobbit (book), let alone a strong one. Her character, admittedly, could have been more developed, though.

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Tauriel and Legolas

You could argue that Legolas doesn’t belong here, either. As he wasn’t in the book. But he was the son of Thranduil, the king of Silvan Elves (wood-elves), so he must have existed back then. Only not mentioned. And Jackson has far diverted the story from the book already. But who am I to complain if the films turn out this good?

The youngest Dwarf (and according to my niece, the best looking one) Kili, falls in love with Tauriel, whilst she gets increasingly torn between him and Legolas. She converses sweetly with Kili while he’s locked up, and Legolas secretly observes, envy plain in his eyes. This romantic subplot (a love-triangle!) was not a deterrent to the main plot-line for me. Although, it did take away precious screen-time which could have been used in more character development of the new characters, especially Tauriel.

When the Dwarves escape from the Woodland Realm in empty wine barrels through a river with Bilbo’s assistance, they are pursued first by Elves and then Orcs who see this as a great chance to finish off “Dwarvish Scum”. This escape scene was probably my favourite in the entire film and the list includes Bilbo’s showdown with Smaug. Here, battle gets sort of muddled. Elves fight Orcs and they in turn fight both Elves and Dwarves. The Elf-duo (Tauriel and Legolas)  somehow make even killing look like a work of art. Every shoot of the arrow hits the target, every lunge exudes finesse, and every fighting stance has a grace to it.

Another notable addition to the cast is Luke Evans, as Bard the Bowman. His character is considerably expounded in the film. More so than Tauriel. He actually helps the heroes in their quest by carrying them to Laketown in his boat. And we come to know about his family, too. Among other things. I think Luke did a great job as Bard.

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He does not approve of the quest, though, when he realises who the Dwarves really are and what they intend to do. He is aware of what happens to a town when a dragon is unleashed. He regrets his giving assistance to the the company and yells to Thorin:

You have no right to enter the mountain!”

To which, Thorin replies, thoroughly unimpressed and perfectly unperturbed:

“I have the only right.”

When the company eventually arrives at the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo is charged with the task of burgling out (with he being the official burglar of the company and all) the Arkenstone, which would give Thorin the right to be “King Under the Mountain”. In short, his rightful throne. At this point, Thorin begins to show signs of “treasure sickness” which inflicted his grandfather, and which invited Smaug in the first place. Maybe the proximity to Arkenstone has something to do with it?

Bilbo approaches the treasure and confronts Smaug. The Smaug set-piece turned out to be one of the best in the film. Easily my favourite after the dwarves-in-barrels scene. I simply loved the idea of a huge, terrible dragon being as crafty as he is so majestically powerful. Also, I loved how the tension was built up until he wakens. Dwarves converse within themselves, whilst Bilbo is in the treasure chamber with dragon. As they hear a deafening roar, Dori asks:

 “Was that an earthquake?

Balin replies:

“That, my lad, was a dragon.”

Smaug repeatedly taunts Bilbo, seemingly amused, and expresses his distastes for all-thing Dwarves (my, my, poor Dwarves). Bilbo, however, keeps his cool and tries to make good use of the One Ring to elude Smaug. Too bad, that does not seem to work. Smaug’s sense organs seem far too strong for a dragon. Heck, for pretty much anyone. Bilbo tries everything to stay alive, though, even flattery:

“Truly songs and tales fall utterly short of your enormity, O Smaug the Stupendous!”

The voice-acting was brilliant by Benedict Cumberbatch (not his voice exactly, a modulated version), who happens to be Martin Freeman’s co-star in Sherlock.

With all Smaug’s grandeur and wiles, he still can’t beat Bilbo’s confrontation with Gollum in my eyes. With Gollum’s child-like, almost pitiable obsession with the One Ring, and nicely acted sequence by Andy Serkis, the Bilbo-Gollum showdown was simply unmissable.

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Our burglar gets his courage out of nowhere to confront Smaug the Terrible

Like all Peter Jackson films, the visual-effects were simply perfect in the Desolation of Smaug. CGI rendering was so good that I inwardly wished I could pause the film and observe those little details more closely. Smaug might just be the most realistic on-screen CGI dragon ever. And when I say the film was visually fantastic, I am not even taking the 3D effects into consideration.

It is not just about technical brilliance, though. The primary reason I am loving the series is because of its great cast. I don’t think I can ever tire of watching Sir Ian Mckellen’s Gandalf. I just can’t. He is like that kind grandfather who makes things better with his mere presence. Martin Freeman was once again superb. Funny, how I had thought he would be awful as Bilbo before watching the first film. Well, I am happy to be proved wrong for once. The Dwarves were great too, especially Aidan Turner as Kili. He did have a bigger role this time.

Methinks, Howard Shore is highly underrated. When we talk about LoTR trilogy and The Hobbit films, we forget how well these films are scored. While the soundtrack of Desolation of Smaug is not as good as its prequel, it is still pretty damn good. Shore uses traditional arrangements and yet produces an amazing OST with some engaging tunes.

The film ends on a cliff-hanger – but that is expected for the second film of a trilogy. Although, it has set me aflame in anticipation for the concluding film already.

So, that’s that. I utterly adored the movie and I think it is a great addition to another legendary trilogy-in-making by Peter Jackson. It easily rivals The Two Towers from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy as a “linking” film. The film is not without a fair share of flaws, I grant you, but overall, it is an engrossing fantasy experience which should be on everyone’s watch-list. There and Back Again promises to be a super-grand conclusion I WILL NOT MISS at any cost.

Rating: 9/10

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