-Smaug has finally arrived!
As promised, here’s a much detailed review of the second installment in ‘The Hobbit’ Trilogy. Having seen the film three times so far, I’m able to delve into a bit more detail concerning the workings of the film.
This is perhaps the second ‘Desolation of Smaug’ review out of 3 – the third (the most detailed) will probably be released after the DVDs, or perhaps even the Extended Edition.
Suffice to say, here be film spoilers (no book spoilers present though, as far as the story goes till Film 2 that is ;) )
I have decided to section the review according to each scene, and have used chapter titles found in both the book and (where the story deviates) the soundtrack’s track list.
(Note: Since there’s no DVD release yet, I’ve had to use only screenshots provided by the trailers to accompany the text – though I’ll try my best not to bore you!)
- So it begins …
The Quest For Erebor
Starting off with his well-known prologues, Peter Jackson takes us back to the first “chance meeting” between Gandalf and Thorin, explaining how the wizard urged the dwarf to go on the adventure (and bring along a particular burglar), whilst at the same time, emphasizing the importance of the King’s jewel – the Arkenstone, a symbol of Erebor’s reclamation and the union of the Dwarves.
As the prologue comes to an end, we are immediately trust into the fast-paced and darker narrative of the Quest, with the Company still finding itself having to run away from Azog (the Pale Orc) and his warg riders. But there’s another obstacle to face – a giant black bear, who seems to have picked up their scent.
Gandalf has no option but to seek refuge in the house of Beorn – a powerful skin-changer and the aforementioned bear. In a nail-biting scene that sees the Company running for safety towards the house as they are chased by the ferocious bear, Peter Jackson gives us a very tantalizing glimpse into the nature of this being.
He cleverly demonstrates his strength as both a man and a beast – a strength that even Azog does not dare to challenge; and the Pale Orc is soon forced to abandon his hunting as he is called back by the sinister Necromancer.
Plunging ourselves into the dark recesses of the old fortress of Dol Guldur, we start to get a better perspective on who this mysterious “Necromancer” (from the first film), really is. Assuming the shape of a (still very much mysterious) black shadow, it confronts the Pale Orc, hinting at a coming War and the onset of Darkness.
This malevolent presence becomes immediately apparent, as Benedict Cumberbatch provides the chilling voice of the character – uttering the dreaded Black Speech in reverse – providing for a much more evil and sinister character than the Orc leader we have learned to fear.
Against his wishes, Azog is forced to abandon his quest for revenge, leaving the dirty work in the hands of another brutal-looking orc, Bolg.
There’s much to be understood here, especially of a sub-plot which will eventually infuse itself with the main narrative of the Quest for Erebor. After having been introduced to many of the characters and places in ‘An Unexpected Journey’, Peter Jackson starts to gradually build-up the tension and lay before the audience the rising climax.
Question that were perhaps left obscure in the first film, are slowly starting to fit into place as the second film unfolds – discovering more motivations and goals for the different characters.
Back inside Beorn’s house, the Company rests from the day’s toil – that is, with the exception of Bilbo. His attention is being drawn to the “seductiveness” of the Ring – as he fondly fiddles with it, accompanied by the well-known “throbbing” and the musical motif found in ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
The filmmakers have decided to put much more emphasis on the Ring and its effects on Bilbo – much more than in the book. And, undoubtedly, that is a very good way to proceed, dropping hints about this powerful and dangerous artifact in the hands of a feeble hobbit.
Finally, we get to meet the much-expected character of Beorn – a rough man with no regard to gentle speech. Played wonderfully by Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt, the character comes across as haughty and bitter – but nonetheless, a solitary figure with much kindness and love towards animals. A character who is ultimately willing to help the dwarves on their quest.
It is a true pity that we do not get to see more of this fascinating character, but Peter Jackson seems to have learned from the first film not to dwell too much on certain parts of the book. And that is well, but the opening scenes of the film still could have done with some more introduction to this essential character.
No doubt we will see more of Beorn in Film 3 … much more.
Flies and Spiders
As the Company acquires Beorn’s help, they ride towards the decaying forest of Mirkwood – the major obstacle between them and Erebor. But it immediately becomes apparent to Gandalf that there are other pressing matters to attend to. Warning signs at the entrance to the forest remind him of the danger of the Necromancer and he soon finds himself heading towards the equally mysterious High Fells to investigate the matter further.
Meanwhile, the Dwarves and Bilbo plunge into the dense forest – trying to do their best to stay on the path.
What follows, is undoubtedly one of the best montage moments in any of the Middle-earth films. Peter Jackson takes us on a powerful sequence, a psychological series of events that seem to strongly hark back to the director’s roots in horror films.
The darkness and claustrophobic feeling of Mirkwood becomes immediately apparent in the dizzying camera shots of the Company trying to find their way around the tangled forest. The images becomes hazy and gloomy, whilst the audio becomes muffled as, as an audience, we become immersed in the quest and start to feel the effects of disorientation too.
As the Company reluctantly plods on, Bilbo ends up almost losing his mind as he becomes witness to a series of events: his feet walking backwards, seeing himself walking behind him, and the general confusion from the other dwarves.
But the hobbit seems to be one of the few to still retain some sense of sanity, as he seeks to find their exact location.
In a scene which perfectly captures the mood and atmosphere of the book, Bilbo climbs up a tree and manages to peer out of the forest-roof to receive the caressing (and healing) powers of the sun – accompanied by Howard Shore’s truly mesmerizing score.
Nonetheless, danger is not far off and the hobbit soon finds himself trapped, along with the others, within the webs of giant spiders. But the hobbit soon proves his worth and ever-growing courage. Taking on the hideous and “beautifully-created” creatures (a big well done to WETA digital!), Bilbo uses his wit (and the Ring) to save his companions.
The shift once Bilbo wears the Ring is wonderfully executed. We, just like the hobbit, are able to understand the spiders’ speech – a guttural and high-pierced series of sounds, just barely understandable – but nonetheless, spine-tingling. As the sequence unfolds, Bilbo attacks the creatures and in the process gives his sword the name of Sting.
The fighting that ensues has also got to be a defining moment of this film – combining both elements of black humour and horror, the Company battles the hordes of spiders. Bilbo’s growing lust for the Ring becomes more apparent as he viciously attacks one of the creatures in a bitter rage to claim the object: “It’s mine!”.
And this is where Martin Freeman’s performance shines once again. From a hobbit who is suddenly under the influence of the Ring, he realizes the violent change that seemed to take hold of him and finally breaks down.
Meanwhile, the Dwarves witness the sudden arrival of an Elf with impressive acrobatic abilities – as he takes on not one, but two spiders in one single movement – managing to end his spectacular performance by aiming his bow and arrow towards Thorin.
And that is our first introduction to Legolas and the Wood Elves of Mirkwood.
The “rustic” characteristics of these Elves becomes immediately apparent – and comes out as strongly contrasted to the more refined and sophisicated Elves in Rivendell or Lorien.
We also meet Tauriel – yet another able warrior who’s attention towards Kili becomes increasingly apparent as the film unfolds …
The Woodland Realm
As the Dwarves are taken into the dungeons of the Elves, we meet Thranduil – king of the Woodland Realm, as he confronts an old “friend”.
Lee Pace gives the character a real touch of “elvishness” – embodying the characteristics of an individual who is both wise and in-tune with his surroundings; but at the same time, with his own narrow-mindedness and faults.
I fully praise Pace’s performance – his movements, method of speaking and even physical subtleties, give Thranduil a character with a great history. Much like Hugo Weaving’s Elrond, here we seem to have a proper Elf who has had to do no training or wear any costume for the part. Fantastic.
Feast of Starlight
Now we slowly get to the part which many fans have strongly objected against – the “romantic story” between Tauriel and Kili.
The scene sees Tauriel (Captain of the Guards inspecting each prison cell) and the dwarf converse with each other.
It is, no matter how “un-Tolkienistic” it may seem, a fascinating scene that sees these two different races (whose leaders are involved in a bitter feud with each other), to find common things to talk about. We also get more insight into the motivations of the two characters.
At the same time, Howard Shore’s music resonates strongly in this scene – the climax of this piece of music is simply divine. :)
Barrels Out of Bond
This is it. One of the most talked about scenes in ‘The Desolation of Smaug’.
Once again, Bilbo manages to prove his worth, as he frees his companions and leads them into the cellars to execute his plan of escape.
Combining humour, wittiness and brilliantly-choreographed action set pieces, the more commonly-termed “Barrels Sequence” is a pure thrill ride.
As the dwarves try to make their way out of the Woodland Realm by way of barrels, orcs attack the Elf garrison and a series of organized-chaotic events follow – which sees three groups of individuals each vying for their own goals amidst the relentless torrents of the Forest River: with the Dwarves and Bilbo trying to escape, the Elves trying to recapture them, and the orcs simply killing everyone!
Yes, bouncing inside a barrel and squashing orcs may seem an over-the-top moment more fit for the first film, but this was undoubtedly a brilliant scene for the dwarf and for myself too! Ah … I love Bombur!
A Warm Welcome
After escaping from the Wood Elves, the Dwarves find themselves having to pay to get smuggled into Lake-town – a city of Men, the closest habitation within sight of the Lonely Mountain.
We get to meet Bard, a bargeman who takes care of ferrying empty barrels from the Woodland Realm to his home in Lake-town (or Esgaroth).
Yet another brilliant performance by Luke Evans, Bard the bowman is given more depth to his character – a widower with three children to take care of. Although retaining the book’s grimness and suspicious elements of his character, he still becomes immediately likable – willing to smuggle a group of dwarves (and a hobbit) in the city, run by a corrupt Master.
There was a bit of doubt by some fans when Stephen Fry was cast as the Master of Lake-town – fearing that his personality might give the character more of a humorous twist. And whilst some “funny” elements have formed part of that characterization, Fry nonetheless provides a wonderful performance that cleverly portrays the stereotypical behaviours of a typical politician – keeping his own interests above everything else.
(I’m really hoping we get to see more of his character in the Extended Edition and Film 3).
His sidekick, the “made-up” character of Alfrid (Ryan Gage), equally serves a fitting role as the Master’s spy and wicked adviser – always trying to thwart the good sides plans.
Lake-town itself emits a very vivid and realistic sense of history – a new, uncharted place within the cinematic framework of Middle-earth. A combination of physical sets and computer-generated buildings (coupled with Andrew Lesnie’s superb lighting setups), turns this town into a fully believable Victorian-esque location.
In ‘The Two Towers’ we were introduced to Edoras and the Rohirrim. Here, Peter Jackson manages once again to introduce us to a new people, with an astonishing attention to detail and authenticity.
It’s wonderful to be able to see Middle-earth “expanding” to new realms and be able to travel across by means of these two Trilogies.
The High Fells
As the Dwarves find themselves enmeshed in the political intricacies of Lake-town, Gandalf is on a journey of his own. Having heard rumours of the Necromancer and the resurfacing of a morgul blade (one of the Ringwraith’s deadly weapons), he goes to investigate in the so-called High Fells – supposedly the “resting place” and prison of these evil spirits.
Now, this is a completely invented, non-canon scene. In Tolkien’s legendarium, the Nazgúl were never defeated and entombed in the equally non-existent “High Fells”. But whilst this may not respect the “rules” set out by Tolkien (since it implies that the Ringwraiths were able to be captured by Men), it is still a chilling and tense scene – one that is strongly reminiscent of the very familiar Mordor settings found in ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
Beautiful vistas of sheer cliff sides mark the location of the High Fells, as the solitary figure of the Wizard makes its way inside a dark cavern on a sheer precipice. Combining artistic skill and creative direction, Peter Jackson manages to convey elements of horror and dread – along with a jump-out-of-your-seat moment, as Gandalf is joined by his friend Radagast to investigate the tombs – which have been broken from the inside.
Gandalf decides to go and investigate the old fortress of Dol-Guldur in order to reveal the truth and, if his suspicions are correct (on the true nature of the Necromancer), the White Council would be compelled to attack.
Again, the atmosphere and purpose of the scene is well justified – especially in explaining the Necromancer’s subplot within ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ frameworks (albeit with some non-canonical elements in relation to the Ringwraiths).
Back in Lake-town, Bard realizes the Dwarves’ true intent to take over the Mountain – but against his wishes, the Master accepts their welcome (in the hope of receiving a share of the much-rumoured treasure).
Here Peter Jackson decides to split the Company in two, leaving behind Bofur, Oin and Fili to tend for their seriously injured Kili. The rest, by the blessing of the people of Lake-town, head for the Lonely Mountain.
Thankfully, the relationship between Thorin, Kili and Fili is made clear – with the latter reprimanding his “uncle” (finely they say it!) for leaving him behind, and that he should stay with his brother, against Thorin’s wishes.
That Fili is the next in line to the throne after his uncle, is also emphasized, but perhaps the relationship may not come across to many movie-goers, unless they see the film more than once.
Again, the non-canonical split of the Company seems to serve as a way for Peter Jackson to be able to jump between the scenes from the Lonely Mountain and Lake-town – alternating between them when the narrative reaches a climax.
A Spell of Concealment
Meanwhile, Gandalf uses his magical prowess to remove a spell of enchantment that provides cover for the evil armies that are hidden within Dol Guldur.
After several tense moments amidst the dark, labyrinth recesses of the fortress, the scene explodes into a powerful showdown that displays the wizards abilities. Confronted by Azog, Gandalf witnesses the march of Dol Guldur’s army in order to take over the free lands. What its destination is (whether Erebor or one of the Elf strongholds) is yet unclear at this point. But what is certain is that the Necromancer wants Middle-earth all for himself.
And finally, Gandalf meets this mysterious figure and in an impressive battle of magic, the two forces collide against each other. Suffice to say, the encounter is breathtaking – the visuals and sound effects all contribute to a truly monumental scene.
But what makes this more impressive, is the sudden revelation to Gandalf (along with the audience) that the Necromancer is in fact Sauron, the Lord of the Rings himself. As he breaks the Wizard’s staff and holds him back against a ruined wall, he materializes into a giant ball of flame (the figure momentarily appears to be wearing the infamous armour during the prologue of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’).
Gandalf painfully proclaims the words “Sauron”, as a giant flaming eye imposes itself on the audience with an almost hypnotic rhythm.
On the Doorstep
Considering the title of the film refers to the desolate are around Erebor, there is little screen-time where the Company is seen treading amidst the ruins of Dale and its surroundings.
Meanwhile, having found the hidden door, Thorin despairs as they unsuccessfully attempt to open it. Richard Armitage provides a spectacular performance as the once proud King who suddenly turns on his Company, confused and bewildered by the sudden twist in luck. “That’s what it says on the map …”, he utters in a broken voice.
Apart from the visuals, what makes this new Trilogy as spectacular as the first, are the actors; who completely immerse themselves in their own respective characters and give their utmost best.
As the secret door is opened, both Thorin and Balin wonder at the carvings and structures of the walls within – reminding them of their long lost home. With tears in his eyes, Ken Stott’s character walks slowly in, unable to contain his joy. This moment always strikes me as highly emotional, seeing these two dwarves who have returned home after so much turmoil.
However, the quest is far from over and it is time for Bilbo to keep his promise and venture within the halls of Erebor to reclaim the Arkenstone.
Constantly intercut with the events inside Erebor, are the scenes in Lake-town – where Bard, having sensed the approaching danger, reveals that he has the last of the famed Black Arrows capable of killing the dragon. But he is soon apprehended and arrested by the Master.
In the meantime, Bolg has caught up his hunt and attacks the unsuspecting Dwarves who are desperately attempting to save Kili’s life. In another action sequence invented by the writers, Legolas and Tauriel come to their aid – performing a new array of tricks and archery abilities.
Yet again, this is the second instance (after a ‘Feast of Starlight’) where Shore’s music seems to stand-out from the story and provide a beautiful melody to the scene. And having successfully healed the dwarf, the “romantic connection” seems to be getting stronger between the two.
What’s in store for the two characters in Film 3 is both highly feared and questioned by many …
My Armour is Iron
Undoubtedly, the most anticipated character for this film was the dragon Smaug himself. Benedict Cumberbatch was long reported to be providing both the voice and performance for the creature and whilst the filmmakers themselves applauded his characterization, the general audience had yet to decide for itself.
And my oh my what I wonderful surprise!
Smaug has got to be the most realistically rendered, most beautiful dragon design ever put on screen. Not only Cumberbatch’s voice, which alternates between chilling, angered and seductive, but also the pitch-perfect movements of the face – the smallest of subtleties which give Smaug his deserved reputation of a most cunning and intelligent dragon.
Suffice to say, seeing both Freeman and Cumberbatch’s performance on screen together, is probably the main highlight of the entire film. The interaction between the two strongly recalls the Riddles in the Dark sequence in ‘An Unexpected Journey’ – between Bilbo and Gollum. But here, the dragon is much more impressive and the scene unfolds just like a play, with an almost Shakespearean Smaug still capable of transmitting so much emotions to the viewers.
As the story reaches its climax, the Dwarves confront the dragon in an impressive sequence taking place deep within the vast halls of Erebor – displaying both the terrifying strength of the dragon and the commanding will of Thorin who manages to outsmart his nemesis.
To be honest, I wasn’t too sure about this newly-invented scene. It actually took me until the third viewing to realize how splendid all this played out. The wittiness and execution of it all is wonderful. There’s a constant “battle” between sheer strength (portrayed by the dragon) and the cunning capabilities of the dwarves.
The final scene ends with an angered Smaug who decides to seek revenge upon those who helped the Dwarves on their journey – the inhabitants of Lake-town. As he flies in wrath over the Long Lake towards Esgaroth, he states the deeply disconcerting and powerful words: “I am fire, I am Death”.
Bilbo, emerging out of the front gate, looks on in horror – proclaiming “What have we done?”.
Biggest cliffhanger ever.
Peter Jackson doesn’t end his films in cliffhangers and this was certainly a big surprise, which left many audiences moaning about having to wait another year to see what happens. I had the same feelings, and even though I’ve read the story and know how it progresses, I’m still very much anticipating to see the third film.
Perhaps, the general consensus about the film’s ending shows how effective it was in its build-up to reveal the dragon and the rest of the story. Peter Jackson was brave enough to leave people in the dark for another year, strongly teasing us with events to come.
The Soundtrack and Final Remarks
Whilst the first film had many familiar musical elements found in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Howard Shore provides us with a wealth of new motifs and tracks for this unknown part of Middle-earth. Unfortunately, whilst in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘An Unexpected Journey’, some of the music seemed to dominate particular scenes, none of those found in ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ seemed to stand-out from the visuals.
This is not to say that Shore’s music for film 2 is not worthy of its predecessors. On the contrary. There is such an array of beautifully composed tracks that continue to expand and provide a realism to Middle-earth – but one would have to listen to them separately in order to be able to appreciate them more.
Although the film wouldn’t be the same without Shore’s contribution, the visuals and the storytelling seem to “overwhelm” (perhaps, not in a negative way) the sense of awe that the music brings with it. Nonetheless, there’s certainly a wide range of riches in there – a hoard of musical compositions that would make even Smaug himself blush!
As already stated, the second installment is much better paced than the first film – giving us access to new realms and locations in the much-loved Middle-earth. At the same time, we are introduced to new characters and, as the story develops and splits into different categories, the stakes are raised higher – leading towards Erebor and Smaug himself. Many of the dwarves are given time to expand more of their motivations and behaviours; and Thorin’s slow degeneration as a greedy Dwarf King.
‘The Desolation of Smaug’ sets the right mood and setting for what will eventually be an apocalyptic third film – literally …
[All images are copyright of Warner Bros., MGM Studios and New Line Cinema]