Photo taken from Desolation of Smaug movie website.

Film Review — The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The latest entry in director Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit series, The Desolation of Smaug continues the quest of Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield’s band of dwarves, as the company journeys closer to the Lonely Mountain in its attempt to reclaim the long-lost dwarf kingdom from the clutches of the fierce fire-breathing dragon with whom the film shares its name. Along the way, Bilbo’s band encounters elves, orcs, men, and plenty of danger, eventually splitting into smaller factions, dividing the film’s focal point across three sets, something previously seen in other Lord of the Rings films by Jackson. But whether that’s for better or worse this time around is, maybe for the first time in the series, up for debate.

Readers should be advised that none of these criticisms will reflect differences between the film and Tolkien’s original novel.

Disclaimers

As is always with any film in the Hobbit/LOTR franchise, parents should be advised of fantasy violence and mildly frightening scenes. Nothing graphic, but be forewarned that small children may be startled at the sights of dismembered and sometimes decapitated orcs onscreen.

Aside from that, there’s no real cause for concern. Jackson’s films have never contained much in the way of coarse language or sexuality, and The Desolation of Smaug is no exception.

But is it worth a watch?

Like its predecessors, the film is jam-packed with vibrant visuals and top-notch action sequences, featuring some of the best fight scenes in any Hobbit/LOTR movie. One scene from the film’s opening half, in which Bilbo and company battle their way down a series of river rapids all the while floating in a series of wine barrels, contains the perfect balance of edge-of-your-seat thrills and just a pinch of comedic timing that makes Jackson’s Middle Earth films undeniably entertaining. Think that the banter between Legolas and Gimli was funny in Return of the King? That has nothing on the barrel scene in Desolation of Smaug.

But on the topic of Legolas, that’s where we run into the biggest problem with the film in general—it just has too much going on. The latter half of the film feels a little bit messy, jumping between scenes of Gandalf, Legolas/Tauriel, and Bilbo/Thorin in a way that seems as though it was intended to keep us gripped with several layers of drama, when in actuality it could have been better served to give us what the book did—less.

Viewers should know that directors and writers are allowed to take liberties with the story—that’s how Hollywood works. My argument here is not that The Desolation of Smaug missteps because it deviates from the novel; it missteps because, as a standalone film, it divides and detracts audiences’ attention from the main story, which is that of the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. While it’s interesting to explore more and more of Middle-Earth’s onscreen depictions, it starts to feel a little stretched, as though the entire film has been sort of padded out and doesn’t serve any real function besides bridging between last year’s An Unexpected Journey and next year’s There and Back Again.

You know how in the Old Testament, we get quite a bit of Abraham, quite a bit of Jacob, but Isaac is kind of left in the middle without many notable distinguishing factors? That’s sort of how The Desolation of Smaug feels. It’s there; it’s definitely not unimportant, but it seems to lack the strength to stand on its own two feet and instead can only exist as part of a larger story. It’s a decent addition to an already established and well-loved franchise, but if this were the only Middle-Earth you’d ever seen, you’d probably think, “meh.”

Whereas 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey managed to deliver what was perhaps an unexpectedly enjoyable experience, its successor, The Desolation of Smaug feels altogether expectable, and could be indicating that the series has reached its saturation point. While the film remains a worthy entry in the series as a whole, it was the first time I’ve ever found myself checking my watch to see how much time was left.

While there are mild instances of spiritual truth to be found in the story, such as the dangers of “straying from the true path,” or “love defying social boundaries” (as in the tacked-on subplot of Tauriel and Kili) or the corrupting nature of entitlement as in the case of Bilbo and Thorin’s confrontation at the entrance to Smaug’s stronghold, there never seems to be any intent at communicating anything of depth in these moments. While entertaining, Desolation of Smaug comes across as mere lip service to fans that will see it out of obligation more than interest.

A pastor friend of mine was known for his expression, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” While it might seem like a good idea to jump in to the deeper context of Middle-Earth for some uninhibited exploration, in this case, delving too deeply into the appendices of the novels (as some of my more Tolkien-informed friends have said is the case) actually detracts from the main story of Bilbo. It sort of reminds me how those of us with a knack for the intellectual rigours of deeper theological study can often have great difficulty connecting our hearts with the ‘heart’ of the gospel, though perhaps such a comparison is a stretch.

Simply, The Desolation of Smaug falls into the category of film that is perhaps best described as entertaining and exciting, but not edifying, enriching, or even enlightening. Which is merely to say that it’s not a bad movie, and even quite a good one at points. But for Christians looking to encounter some deeper themes, this might be the one of the times I recommend: read your Book instead.

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About the author

Rob Horsley is the former Managing Editor of ChristianWeek.