Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

One year has passed and I head for the local multiplex cinema with the kids to watch the second installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. My feelings are mixed. Last year’s episode was more Jackson that Tolkien — what will happen this time?

A few hours later I exit the cinema and listen to what my kids — both true Tolkien fans — have to say. It turns out that I generally share their view: an entertaining action romp, but the ratio Tolkien/Jackson has grown even more unfavorable. This is not the story the good professor wrote, this is Mr Jackson’s plagiarizing it.

Well, the film is certainly okay action fare and it is better paced than episode one. Not a dull moment as far as I can remember. A few matters have been handled elegantly:

1. The encounter in the Wood-elves domain between Thranduil and Thorin: Two too prideful kings face down each other. Thranduil projects an otherwordliness suitable for immortal Elves, whereas Thorin is proud and greedy: a Norseman marching to his doom. It would have been impossible to script it as Tolkien wrote it — now there are serious matters at stake, no doubt about it.

2. Bard the Bowman has received much greater and better attention than in the book. Now he is a smuggler, a closet rebel and a widowed father of two daughters and a son. A full character, not just a hero.

3. The smarmy mayor of Laketown is to the point. An arrogant bastard with a Gríma-style sidekick implementing his unsavory policies.

4. Smaug inside Erebor — awesome, masterful CGI. What a dragon! What a voice!

5. Captain Tauriel. Tolkien’s novel has no female characters (except possibly for spoon-thief Lobelia at the end). That would not be a good setup in our era, so Mr Jackson introduces an extremely competent female warrior. A likeable character.

6. Gandalf’s excursion into Dol Guldur (referred to in the appendices in Return of the King). His climactic “fight” is well conceived. Some things are not supposed to been seen properly and Mr Jackson got that one right.

And now to the less appealing inventions of Mr Jackson.

1. The romance — cringe, cringe, cringe. Both the kids and I agree that this was plain stupid. Say no more.

2. Flume ride* — the barrel chase down the river made me think of Super Mario rather than Tolkien. Both dwarves and elves defy laws of gravity and momentum and become impervious to mechanical and thermal forces. This sequence could not sustain my suspension of disbelief.

3. That thermal folly also applies to Thorin using a steel “raft” to float on a “stream” of molten gold inside Erebor. Looks nice, but gold melts at 1000 Celsius. Roasted dwarf, anyone?

Leaving details and moving into the general observations. Jackson ties this Hobbit story into the web of his Ring movies made a decade ago. The viewer feels that she is inside the same world and the same story — which is not the case when she reads The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Jackson spins a tale of greed and pride — Thorin, Thranduil, the mayor — and the consequences of giving in to such emotions. This story will not end well for many characters, that is obvious. Bilbo is getting “addicted” to the One Ring, too, and that is nicely shown in the encounter with the spiders of Mirkwood. He is getting more brutal, more deceitful and more selfish — apt considering what is in his pocket.

The politics of greed appears in Laketown: the silky speeches; the maneuverings of Thorin and the mayor and their willingness to risk the common good for their individual gain; Bard’s pleas for common sense in a dire situation. Jackson has done a good job there. The city is well rendered on the screen: the plebeians’ way of life among rafts and poles is credible and there are also some graphic and acrobatic (though non-Tolkienian) nightly fight scenes. (I would not like to live in Laketown, but it would be worth a visit or two.)

In the film’s final hour, focus shifts continuously between three significant places: Erebor, Laketown and Dol Guldur. You see how events far apart hang together. The pacing is rapid and the final cliffhanger scene shows how two dark forces get ready to converge in the third episode.

Despite the short-comings listed above, I enjoyed this episode II more than episode I. A solid adventure with some pieces of unnecessary silliness. The verdict is therefore four flaming mountains out of five.

*A reference to an amusement park attraction in Gothenburg, the city of my youth.

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