The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson, 2013)

Every dragon needs his pile of lucre

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug puts perhaps its best and most pleasing joke right at the start. We enter the city of Bree with a token swoop landing of the camera, and greeting us there is Peter Jackson himself. The director is literally the first character in the film, looking straight at us and crunching a carrot. Not only does it hearken back to The Fellowship of the Ring, where he cameo’d as a more menacing drunk welcoming our entry into the town with a burp, it’s almost an audacious statement: “Look at me, I know this is all silliness and I don’t care what you think. I’m the ruffian in Bree and this is my Middle-Earse.”

Then follows what I would consider a massive redemption over the tone-lost, middling An Unexpected Journey. Where that film was full of vague meandering and action set pieces robbed of any consequence, Desolation features the best parts of the original book: Mirkwood, Lake-town and the infiltration of the Lonely Mountain. Throw in the showdown with the necromancer at Dol Guldur and the film simply bursts at the seams with authentic Lord of the Ringsian style and goodness.

It involves slightly less of the tedious exposition that marked the first, and far less limping attempts at humor. What remains is its escalation of and penchant for preposterous action. It’s not enough for our band of dwarves and Bilbo to escape the elves by barrel; it must be a roller coaster of flip-flopping Legolases and video game buffoonery. These poor directors are either deluded or have their hand forced into thinking that action is more impressive and memorable when it’s bigger and more in your face. To borrow a famous epigram: a single death is a tragedy, a million a statistic. The incessant slaughter of hordes of orcs isn’t exciting, it’s boring.

The stint in Lake-town serves as a mini-movie within the story, about handsome trader Bard trying to cast out an insidious mayor played by Stephen Fry. The latter seems curiously out of place in this universe. His character is pompous and concerned about a popular revolt demanding democratic elections. In a clearly feudal world filled with monarchs and serfs, it feels anachronistic, but less so than a certain poorly judged Goblin King did. Bard, by the way, is played by an actor who looks deceptively like Legalos with a beard. I thought it was a sneaky/weird double role by Orlando Bloom, but it turns out after all to be an entirely different human being.

Then comes the dragon. Oh, the dragon. I had such low expectations for Smaug, partly because of my rare condition I’d like to call ‘Benedict Cumberbatch fatigue’. I’d feared Smaug to be phony, clichéd, mechanically uninteresting – but movie magic intervened. The captivating encounter between Bilbo and the dragon is not only the antithesis of the boring action sequences described above, being as it is a face-off between two lone agents in an otherwise abandoned cavern, it is superbly thrilling. As Smaug shrugs off the piles of gold he sleeps under, he starts toying with frantic Bilbo, monologuing about his magnificence and occupying the space in a convincingly terrifying way. Weta have outdone themselves on imbuing Smaug with weight and momentum. In what he says he’s not particularly appealing, thundering such pulp as “I am fire, I am death”, yet Cumberbatch infuses the character with grace and menace. Contrasted to the insignificance of Bilbo, it makes for a thrilling scene that reminds one why these films should be seen on the largest screen possible.

I have hereby regained hope that this trilogy might, at its closure, amount to something quite good indeed: a worthwhile prequel to the one that came before.

Roderick Leeuwenhart