In The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Bilbo and his band of daring dwarves are back to continue their journey toward that distant mountain which houses an immeasurable treasure and the dragon that stole it. Eventually, they meet that dragon, and his revelation is nigh biblical, and I mean God at the end of Job biblical. No donkey will be marrying this dragon. No pimply punk will be training him. Smaug is a desolation indeed.
Before the movie gets to Smaug though, there are a world of hobbit-themed hijinks to amuse the audience including a shape-shifting bear-man, a disorienting walk through the woods, and a barrel ride that’s as fun as anything in a latter-days Donkey Kong video game. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is, in many ways, more fun than its precursor. It doesn’t have any scenes save Smaug’s reveal that are as good as the dwarf song or “Riddles in the Dark” from the first movie, but this sequel clips along at a brisker pace and includes enough extra bits about the many characters to make Peter Jackson’s play on Tolkien’s world feel richer. I was mightily entertained right up to its sudden stop.
Middle movies tend to be the stand-outs of their respective trilogies.The Empire Strikes Back, Spider-Man 2, Toy Story 2, The Two Towers, The Dark Knight, and we’ll see about The Hunger Games series, but Catching Fire is a better movie than its predecessor (if you haven’t seen it yet, you totally should) – all of these are the best of their series. Perhaps that’s because filmmakers are less obligated to reach conclusions in their stories in those middle films. They can spend time adding layers to the characters and world and set things up well for the story’s conclusion.
Jackson and company do some of that world-enriching in this film, but the movie feels much more obligated to its conclusions than other middle movies. There is more urgency than exploration in the plot. Perhaps that because this installment, as Peter Jackson has staged it, is part of a series meant particularly to set up what happens in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, not a stand-alone trilogy in itself. The movie is full of fun moments, and I’m glad we have them, but it begins to be easy to see how The Hobbit could have easily been a two-part movie instead of a three-parter.
My favorite moment in the first Hobbit movie is when Bilbo wakes up the morning following the dwarves’ intrusion into his home. He has refused to go with them, they have left while he slept, and he is now once again alone in his quiet hobbit hole. He stands there in the calm, realizes he has let the chance for adventure pass him by in favor of rote safety, and he is sad. The next moment, he is running through the Shire, contract in hand, screaming that he is going on an adventure. The rest of the movie sees him sticking to it and finding he is up to the challenge not because he is mighty, but because he is easily overlooked and underestimated. In Tolkien’s world, steadfastness and a sharp wit win the day. Swords help, but without the small things, the strong ones come to nothing.
Jackson’s Middle Earth doesn’t quite work that way. In this version of Tolkien’s stories, the small things are constantly being rescued by the big. Wits work but only because the sword (or river of molten gold, whatever) shows up to give wits that little extra punch. It’s a small but important distinction. Of course, in Jackson’s Hobbit, the ring is a force of evil and not a totem that highlights how easy it is to overlook Bilbo, as in Tolkien’s tale, but then again, this story is being told with different purposes in different forms by both storytellers, isn’t it?
If you can’t tell, I’m a bit torn on this movie. I was terrifically entertained by it. I literally laughed out loud at the audacity of the action at times, and I was sad it ended when it did. I wanted more. But at the same time, I miss the peculiar, clever fun of Tolkien’s story. It gets overshadowed by this Hobbit‘s set pieces kind of like how Bilbo gets lost on the screen when Smaug rises up to his full height.
But I don’t mean to suggest that Jackson’s Hobbit is a desolate dragon. I just want you to look closely.