It’s strange how time can get away from you. I originally planned to write this follow-up to my wee blog about the release of the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a year ago, just fresh from seeing the theatrical release of The Desolation of Smaug. However, a somewhat hectic work schedule, as well as a sense that it was somewhat more heavily edited than the first instalment, meant that I set the idea aside and eventually forgot.
Instead, having sat and watched the Extended Cut of Smaug, and the 9 hours of extras on the DVD, (and the final film as well) I feel a little more comfortable with giving some voice to my thoughts on it.
Expectations vs. Reality
In the previous blog on The Hobbit, I surmised that the 2nd film in the trilogy would, by simple plot necessity as well as title, have to end with the confrontation with Smaug, however it was not clear if it would end with a full confrontation with the dragon and his end above a fiery Laketown. I was for the main part correct, but for a few additional sequences to create a cinematic climax to this bridging movie. But I had other expectations, such as the Laketown itself, the realm of the elves, the Spiders of Mirkwood, and the ongoing story of the necromancer. And whilst all of these things were present and correct, many came in forms that surprised me. On an aesthetic level, the film delivered in spades, with Laketown making an especially good impression, and especially Beorn standing as a surprisingly unusual character design; At least for me. (I’d imagined him more like the big Russian dude from Barbarella)
What did come as a surprise in the theatrical edition at least, was the utterly bonkers pacing of the first half of the movie, almost as if… you’d guessed it, they’d chopped out half the scenes, and shortened most of the rest. Much to my appreciation, they’ve restored the scenes, and the pacing in the Extended Edition, which I’d class frankly as the ONLY version of Desolation of Smaug worth watching. In any event, both version also include the opening flashback scene of Thorin meeting Gandalf in Bree, some time before the Quest begins. I liked it, flavour and atmosphere are always welcome. This is a cinematic universe, one that already includes the LOTR trilogy of films, (whether book purists like it or not) and the expansion of that universe into familiar spaces at different times is quite welcome to my mind.
Bears, Mushrumps and Woodsie Tricksey Stringsie Ones
The trouble with the modern audience, is that they’re lazy, and want predictable events in standard patterns. Often that’s fine, as the basic tenets of making a film narrative usually tend to the same beats as those in other storytelling mediums. The trouble with an adaptation of a book like The Hobbit, is that the events of note occur in earnest around the middle of the story and stretch to almost the end. This leaves the blessing and curse that in a 3 film adaptation, film 2 is not only a bridging story with no solid start and end, but also a wealth of ‘exciting memorable moments’ which most stories would have only have sparingly dotted throughout, are what make up the majority of this movie. While that makes it a rollercoaster, it also means that the more placid and thinkier scenes feel longer than they are in comparison.
In essence, the story barely lets up from the moment in Unexpected Journey when the company encounter the Rock Giants, to the arrival at Laketown, at the midpoint of Desolation of Smaug. Which is why the shorter edit feels even more exhausting than the Extended version. The longer extended introduction to Beorn, taken almost verbatim from the book, is a welcome moment of comedy, and relaxation in a long stream of set pieces. As is the river crossing and extra scenes of the befuddled and confused Hobbits in the enchanted and borderline psilocybic air of Mirkwood.
So we end up with the company meeting Beorn, rushing to Mirkwood, being befuddled by magic, attacked by cockney spiders, saved by elves, captured by said elves, escaping from said elves, riding barrels downriver while fighting orcs and then smuggling themselves in those barrels into Laketown. All of which is in pretty rapid succession. PHEW!
Considering all of this, it’s strange however that the scenes with Gandalf at the keep of Dol Guldur feel even more superfluous with the inclusion of the long imprisoned Thrain, who turns up to be saved and almost immediately evaporated. Creating far more questions and confusion than it answers. But even with the extra running time, the Necromancer storyline feels a little underbaked. Gandalf arrives, and is captured, showing us that the Necromancer IS in fact, Sauron. It feels like build-up to a giant third act payoff that doesn’t really arrive, certainly not in THIS movie.
That Good Old Middle Earth Racism
Tolkien’s bickering races are a staple of the worlds of fantasy now, and the Hobbit showcases the friction between the realms and races of Elves, Dwarves, Men and others, all viewed through the eyes of the benign and kindly Bilbo. It’s curious that the Elves, who were afforded a sense of tragic beauty and mystical wonder in Lord of the Rings, are shown to be somewhat petty, stuck up and at times utterly despicable. This could be because the Hobbit is a ‘Dwarf’ story, while arguably LOTR is a story of Elves and Men. Still, the mystique of the Elves is utterly broken in Desolation, as the pettiness and fragile ego of Thranduil, leads the Hobbits to be tossed into captivity, threatened and generally insulted by The Woodland King and his apparently snooty and preening son, Legolas. Yes, Orlando’s presence deserves a mention I suppose. I actually don’t mind him appearing. It’s consistant that he’d be in Mirkwood at the time, and as Thranduil’s heir apparent would have a hand in many matters. Orlando is also still young enough to convincingly pull off Legolas, although he is looking just that wee bit rounder in the cheeks than he did 10 years ago. Sorry, Orly.
Of course that leads to the other unexpected Elf character….
You can hail him as the inventor of a complete genre of modern literature, of crystilising the mythology of europe into a fantastical allegory for his life, both before and after experiencing the horrors of the First world War. But the fact remains, Tolkien wasn’t all too great on writing female characters. He was good at archetyping them, with Arwen standing in for every ivory tower-dwelling princess and every Tommy’s “girl a’waitin’ back home”. But she wasn’t much of a character in her own right. Similarly, Eowyn began as a love interest for Aragorn and then a martyr figure, only eventually becoming the feisty Joan of Arc-like hero we know after many redrafts & rethinking.
The Hobbit is all but bereft of female characters, with only a handful of them even mentioned in passing, and none actively taking part in the story. So it’s understandable that the Jacksons et al at Wingnut wanted to make up for this lack, to bolster the story and provide a female role in the story, someone to add a romantic element and something nice for the lads to look at as well. To all these ends, they’ve done an unusual job with Tauriel. She’s a distinguised Captain in her own right, but as she is of low birth, unsuitable for the obvious affection Legolas has for her. being flatly told this by the unsubtle and brutually honest Thranduil seems to spur her rebellious streak and make her more open to the charms of Kili. It’s a simple enough couple of scenes, and while a tad underbaked, it feels like the start of something interesting. The only trouble is that it’s not quite enough to sell the idea that Tauriel would risk banishment from the Woodland Realm to chase after Kili, even if he was poisoned and she knew the cure, after that one wee conversation about a stone; regardless if it was implied that they chatted away all night.
Not that I’m complaining, Evangeline Lily is astonishingly beautiful, plays a great elf, and the scenes with her and Aiden Turner’s Kili are charmingly sweet. Especially when she later heals him, and he starts prattling on about his love for her in his fevered delirium. It may be a Boy’s Own Adventure, but boys do eventually realise that girls exist, and the seeds of Kili’s Elf fetish were sown way back in an Extended Edition scene from Rivendell.
Five (character) beats in a Bar(d)
What of Bard though? The man who appears 3/4 of the way through the novel, performs one key action and then gets only minor mentions again? Why not make him a MAJOR CHARACTER? Well, frankly, why not? The key idea in the adaptations of the hobbit seems to be that they’ve taken all the scenes that lasted all of 8 lines in the book, before Toller’s dragged us off to the next location, and made them living breathing places where things happen and dialogue actually occurs. In the book, Bard serves a simple literary function. Fulfilling a family destiny and getting rewarded, as he is “a grim man, but true”. I’ll gloss over his book basis a little here though, as it occurs in what will be in the next film.
Similarly, Laketown is given the expansive treatment, with a wonderful turn from Stephen Fry as the Master and Ryan Gage as his lickspittle, Alfrid. We also get the grim but true bargeman Bard, and his adorable 3 kids, the poor people of the town and a sense of a living breathing world.
All of which turns the 10 page chapter (only half of which is spend in Laketown) into a sizeable chunk of film, and also gives a convenient location to add a fight with Orcs, a poisoned Dwarf in a love triangle with an Elf woman, and an opportunity for James Nesbitt’s kids to get equity cards. As I said, I’ve no issue with Tauriel, Legolas, or the expansion of some characters and world, so, this should all be fine. In fact, it actually helps, as 4 of the party end up staying behind, which isn’t entirely plausible, but means we don’t have 13 dwarfs cluttering up the story when we get to the mountain.
When you need to create an ending out of a non-ending
Which brings us to the finale. A classic modern adventure epic showdown, with several different intercut plotlines. Legolas killing orcs, Tauriel saving Kili… and killing orcs, and The company facing down Smaug.
Now a word on Smaug. Perfect.
That’s the only word needed. Beneficious Bumblecatcher has done a marvelous job with the voice and mo-cap on the Dragon, as have the designers at Weta. The reptilian repulsiveness of him, combined with the majesty of the dragon is sublime. Couldn’t ask for more, and his scene with Bilbo is on a par with the Gollum/Bilbo showdown from Unexpected Journey, what comes as a surprise is the drawn out gold furnace sequence, which is fun, but in a film which is floundering to quite grasp if it wants to be a kids adventure or a more mature adaptation of a classic book, in line with the existing LOTR films, it seems oddly misguided.
On the face of it, I rather liked the idea, and I don’t mind people swinging on ropes and doing daft heroic things in this sort of movie. The final resolution, with Smaug captivated by a giant statue of solid gold, before it bursts molten upon him works thematically and on a character level. It’s does however feel a little tacked on. Because… it is. Still, the end is a wonderful cliffhanger, and Smaug’s malice ridden muttering of “I am Fire, I am… Death” are suitably chilling, as Bilbo looks out at the soon to be decimated Laketown.
It’s hard to hold it against the makers, for what they’ve accomplished here. Middle movies are invariably the unloved probably-smelly children of trilogies, and while the events of the third film still left unseen at the end make only a scant hundred or so pages, there is plenty of scope to tie up the narrative threads, and at least two major setpieces to go; the dragon attack on Laketown, and The Battle of the Five Armies. With a good lot of politicing, sneaking about and suspicion to mix into the middle. Not to mention, the journey back home again. So it’s with a glad eye that we can look towards the third film, the last in the Middle Earth movie saga. As The Desolation of Smaug might be far from perfect, but it’s a fun romp, and a well made film, when it could have been so much worse.