Be honest, Mr. Smaug: do you need a breath mint?
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is both one of the most satisfying and maddening films of the year. It’s visually splendid, illustrating the joys and perils of the world of Middle-Earth as finely as any movie before it did. It’s emotionally versatile, being comical and lighthearted at certain moments and then treacherous and gloomy in others. The performances are sound, with CGI characters being just as memorable as the live ones. Everything in the film was perfect up until it came to it’s end, which ended on a cliffhanger so big that a slackwire artist couldn’t tightrope across it.
Taking place shortly after the events of An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug continues the journey of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), his troop of dwarves, and the slight hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). After narrowly escaping the clutches of the white orc Azog (Manu Bennett), Bilbo and the rest of the dwarves venture on towards the Lonely Mountains, only having a few days left until the secret entrance closes, leaving them forever locked outside of the Lonely Mountains.
Bilbo, however, has greater concerns if the dwarves do manage to get inside. Deep within the twisty lairs of the mountain lies an endless sea of gold and jewels, and asleep among these riches is the vicious Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), a violent, terrifying dragon that formerly laid waste to the dwarves’ land and took their possessions all for himself. If the company does manage to get inside the mountains, Smaug will be waiting there for Bilbo, and there will be a massive conflict between the 100-foot tall fire-breathing dragon and the small, terrified hobbit.
One of the things I love about The Lord of the Rings movies is that the stakes are set up really well in them. Peter Jackson, who has been writing/producing/directing/godfathering the series since The Fellowship of the Ring has proven time and time again how well he can make depth-defying set pieces and visual spectacles, all while raising the emotional stakes of the movie.
Here is yet another example of what Peter Jackson can do in a movie. Visually, the film is unparalleled. There were many moments in the film that I recalled for being either visually spectacular or heart-poundingly exciting. One of them was a eerily creepy fight scene where Bilbo and the dwarves were fighting off an army of spiders in a cursed forest. Another was a chase scene where the crew was stuck in a line of barrels while falling down a waterfall. Other instances in the film include when the dwarves encountered a giant who could transform into a bear, or when Gandalf confronted an early confrontation of Sauron in his own castle. And don’t even get me started on when we meet Smaug for the first time. Jackson’s visual prowess excels just as much as his emotional involvement, and with each of his movies, he always seeks how to outdo himself from his last effort. I’d say he’s outdone himself tremendously here: the look of the film shows just that.
The performances are just as refined as the action and visual effects are. Martin Freeman was just as charismatic and loveable as he was the first time he was Bilbo in An Unexpected Journey, and Ian McKellen once again does well as the wise, ambitious, righteously-driven wizard Gandalf. And Richard Armitage has gained traction as Thorin Oakenshield since the first movie, showing that he can be more than the brutish tough guy. He’s a more vulnerable, more fleshed-out character here, with deep desires and hidden intentions showing that perhaps will be explored more in the third installment.
My favorite character by far, however, wasn’t even from a live performance. Benedict Cumberbatch was frightening, fearsome, and daunting as the terrible Smaug, his articulate, vocabulary-filled speech lining up perfectly with his sinister, seething voice. The visual spectacle of Smaug is perfect, with the dragon leaning luminously over his small, feeble enemies, while his long, slender, scaly arms and body lunge across the dungeon like an elongated spider. But the vocal performance is what makes him convincing, what makes him more than just a CGI creation and a terrifying villain in his own right. The minute I heard Smaug speaking to a shaking Bilbo, I had shivers run down my spine. The entire time he was speaking to Bilbo in mysterious anecdotes and sinister undertones, I was on the edge of my seat. When he started to attack, I clutched my mouth and stared endlessly at the screen, wondering and hoping for the fate of these characters in Smaug’s way.
In An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo benefits from being a more active protagonist than that of Frodo. Here we have Smaug, a giant, fearsome beast that is more actively sinister and spiteful than the stillness of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings.
Everything in the film is refined to the quality of film that you’d recall from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. My only regret is the copout, cliffhanger of an ending that inspired my theater to erupt into boos and groans. I hate it when movies do this to me. They put in so much effort to make a great film up until the last five minutes, where they pull the rug from under you and say “Sorry, that’s all for now! See you next year!” What was Peter Jackson thinking when he went with this ending? At the end of each Lord of the Rings movie, it ended with some form of closure and assurance that the adventure would continue into the next installment, but you didn’t know how it was going to pan out. It kept us intrigued, and it kept us wondering what would happen next. With this movie, it sets itself up to where we already know how it’s going to end: we just don’t get the payoff along with it.
I quote J.R.R. Tolkien: “Books ought to have good endings.” The same should be said for movies.