The Loneliest Mountain, by David Bax
In the tradition of “tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em” high school essay introductions, I will now provide a preview of what you’re about to read. The following is a list of reasons why Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is better than its predecessor, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, followed by a short acknowledgement that, despite the improvements, it’s still not that good a movie.
One of the more flabbergasting things about last year’s Hobbit entry (and there were many) was that, when it was over, it felt like almost nothing had happened. The wizard Gandalf had recruited the hobbit Bilbo Baggins to accompany thirteen dwarves on their quest to reclaim the Arkenstone, a jewel that would restore their fallen kingdom and that was currently being held captive under a mountain by a terrific dragon named Smaug. An Unexpected Journey ended with our heroes gazing off at the mountain. Yep, there it was, still way the hell off in the distance, at least a movie away.
Given that Smaug’s name is in the title, it’s not really a spoiler to tell you that they actually get to the mountain in this one. Now, we all know there’s a third film coming so of course there’s a cliffhanger – a pretty massive one, actually – but we still get to feel like we saw a whole film and not like some idiot staring at his TV at the end of the Sopranos finale, wondering if his cable went out.
So that’s the first improvement. The next, and perhaps the biggest, is the pacing. Desolation of Smaug is only nine minutes shorter than Unexpected Journey but it feels much briefer than that. The first film’s constant meandering sometimes gave the illusion that time had stopped completely and we were now living in some limbo or hell where mountains start punching each other for no reason at all other than that Peter Jackson wants them to. Though this movie also stumbles down some blind alleys featuring talking spiders, a new kingdom of elves and Stephen Fry talking about gout, it never goes so far that we forget our protagonists have a purpose. We don’t stop in our tracks so Hugo Weaving can tell us the names of swords or so the dwarves can sing about dishes. Mercifully, there are no songs at all.
In fact, and this is the third improvement, the whole tone of the film and of the comedy in particular has changed. The escape from Goblin Town in the first one became so playful it was difficult to believe anyone was in any danger at all. A similar sequence this time features the dwarves, some elves and a whole bunch of orcs in a breakneck chase down the river. It is inventive where the last one was jokey. The stakes are there and the consequences are bloody but you’ll still smile at the breathtakingly loony set-piece. This mix of wonder and peril is finally reminiscent of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and is present in a number of other major scenes such as a disorienting trek through a hallucinogenic forest and, of course, the confrontation with Smaug himself, who is beautifully designed and realized and who doesn’t have a distracting, disgusting goiter for a beard like the Goblin King. I wish I could tell you that Jackson also omitted the guy with bird shit caked on his face but at least there’s less of him.
Speaking of comparisons between Smaug and the Goblin King, our fourth and final improvement arrives in the most important part of any action/adventure film, the villains. Old goiter-beard was clearly ridiculous and Azog the Defiler was never believable as a true threat. Maybe it’s because he’s a CGI creation not unlike every other orc in the movie or maybe it’s because Jackson has created a world in which orcs exist mainly to be killed in more and more creative ways by the good guys but Azog was a lame bad guy. He’s got plenty of screen time in Desolation as well but it’s made clear that he is nothing more than the top-ranking henchman of the ascendant Necromancer, whose presence is both felt and seen more this time around. He’s voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose performance is outshone only by his other performance as the titular dragon. It’s about two hours into the film before we get to meet Smaug but the result is well worth the wait. He is transfixing, his massive body weaving and unfurling in the same way his booming, liquid voice does. (Yes, he does talk, just like the spiders. All the bad animals talk. It’s like an evil Narnia.) If you’re one of the many who wonder why studios spend so much on these kinds of movies, you’ll understand when you gaze upon Smaug and upon Jackson’s increasingly awe-inspiring ways of displaying him.
Now, about the conclusion I mentioned earlier. In light of all I mentioned, it pains me to say that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug falls yet short of being a successful film. Jackson has come up from the cellar but he has not reached the top floor. The plot diversions may be less diverting but they are still there. And the dialogue is clunky on a James Cameron level. There are multiple variations on the “If I were (blank), you’d be dead already” cliché. And one dwarf, to imply that he’s worried they’re never going to reach the mountain, says, “We’re never going to reach the mountain, are we?” in the manner of a child realizing his family can’t afford a trip to Disneyland this summer. The river chase has all the action you hope for and the confrontation with Smaug has all the pathos and wonder that we want from these movies. But there’s still a good hour and a half where things like those aren’t happening.