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Dec 222014

Part Eight ~ Smaug the Terrible Unleashed, At LAST!

In this portion of the Mordor Review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we take a closer look at the desolation of Erebor and the awakening of the beast beneath the Mountain.

In Part One of Mordor’s Review of The Hobbit: DoS, I gave a brief overview of the film. I touched on many areas of The Hobbit: DOS where I feel it shined and other areas was where I feel it failed. In Part Eight of this review, we are going deep into Erebor and take stock of the dragon and  and this part of the story unfolds.

Please go HERE to our Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review Page for all nine parts of the Mordor Review!

Let’s begin Part Eight of our review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug with the dwarves first view of the Lonely Mountain!

Before I start, I will remind the reader that I stated in Part One of this review that I’m of two minds about this film… as such I will often be giving a positive review on a particular scene or plot point and then may turn around and follow up with a negative thought about it… or vise-versa. Please bear with me. I also want to say that this part of the Mordor Review of The desolation of Smaug will be shorter then some of the others… or I’ll never get this review completed! LOL!

Finally… I have posted this long awaited 8th part of the Mordor Desolation of Smaug Review! Better late then never suppose!

I must also mention that I have just seen The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (once) before concluding this review… That said… lets begin!

Finding the hidden door upon the face of the mountain!

As Bilbo and ‘some’ of the dwarves cross the Long-lake we see the heroic image of Thorin standing at the head of the long boat looking up at the most dramatic image of the Lonely Mountain we have seen thus far. We finally get to see the peak of the mountain in all it’s glory! (See the Mountains design evolution HERE) We then watch as the dwarves climb up and see the ruined city of Dale before them. A visually stunning moment.

The Company of dwarves are supposed to be waiting for Gandalf here… but with time short they head straight for the secret mountain door.

In the book, Bilbo and the dwarves spend many days looking for the secret door in the mountain, but in Peter Jackson’s version of events they must find it in a single day, climbing up it’s vast heights before the end of Durin’s Day. It is Bilbo, who discovers the secret stairway built into the side of a huge sculpture of a dwarf cut into the side of the mountain. Visually I thought this was a wonderful expansion of Tolkien’s ideas about Erebor and the Lonely Mountain. In a way, it reminded me of the Argonath in FOTR. Peter Jackson can take a few lines of text and turns them into a visual feast. It also offers the dwarves an expedient way to climb up the side of the mountain before sunset.

I have several issues with how this scene played out on film vs the book.

The filmmakers crafted the scene of the secret door differently. My main issue was the fact that after traveling hundreds of miles through terrible dangers… they simply give up and began to descend the mountain when the door doesn’t appear. REALLY? It seems like they gave up way to easily, after all they have been through and considering what is at stake here. The most egregious part of the scene is when Thorin takes the Key of Erebor and simply tosses it to the ground as if it means nothing. This is an heirloom of his family, carried by his grandfather and father. At the very least they could try again next year… why throw the key away? This action seems ridiculous in the face of all the dwarves have been through at this point in the trilogy. It also also seemed to me, that the key nearly flying off the side mountain was an unnecessary trick to make us gasp.

On the flip side, I loved the idea of the moon representing the last light of Durin’s Day! A very nice touch that helped build tension in this scene. I was also very happy that it was Bilbo who was given this ‘key’ discovery scene just like in the books. I was a little disappointed in how the the key hole appears, it is very similar to what happened in the book, but having seen the West Gate of Moria scene in The Lord of the Rings, I was hoping for something a bit more magical. But that’s just me.

The Secret Door opens and they enter Erebor.

I thought this scene played out wonderfully and the introduction of the Arkenstone in this scene was handled expertly. When Bilbo sees the stone carving over the doorway and is told by Thorin that his service has been rendered primarily to get this much sought after gem, we begin to see how Peter Jackson has elevated the importance of the Arkenstone to a higher level in these films and in turn it’s effect on Thorin.

There  is a tender moment and a nice bit of comedy, when Bilbo talks to Balin as he shows him the way down into the Dragon’s den. This is scripted almost directly from the book, but is expanded upon in a wonderful way that showcases the relationship of the dwarves to Bilbo, in much the same way that Tolkien crafted this relationship so well in his written words.

The scene also helps create the connection that Bilbo and Balin share in The Hobbit book. Balin states how amazing Hobbits really are, which mirrors much of the point of view of the book. The final moment of this scene is a nice comedic bit where Balin tells Bilbo… “If there is indeed a live dragon down there, don’t awaken it!” Bilbo turns to enter the tunnel and then turns back around to ask another question of Balin and finds him already disappearing into the tunnel on his way back to the other dwarves. In the book there is a lot of comedy around how the dwarves are always willing to let Bilbo go off into danger on their behalf. This scene captures the essence of this very succinctly.

Enter the Dragon…

As Bilbo walks out into the main hall of Erebor, we see a vast chamber filled to brimming with gold and treasure. Tolkien’s description (and drawing) of a vast mountain of gold upon which Smaug lay, is heightened by Peter Jackson to epic scale, with a vast landscape of gold. Rather than a flat surface upon which the gold sits, it appears to be a a huge slope causing the gold to cascade down the sides like a river as Bilbo and Smaug move within the space.

Bilbo begins to walk about the place looking for the Arkenstone after determining there is no dragon present. Martin Freeman plays this moment perfectly as we see him picking up white gems and then tossing them away in frustration, then cut to him against the larger space and you see how impossible finding the heart of the mountain will be in this vast space filled with treasure.

Peter Jackson has take the words of Tolkien and as he has done so many times before in his Middle-earth films has made something vast out of just a few simple words of text. Erebor and the piles of treasure written by tolkien and illustrated in one of his drawings you can see to the right, have on film been transformed into something vast beyond imagining.

Smaug Awakens…

This is an absolutely perfect scene and is one of may favorite in the films. To me this scene mirrors the scene with Gollum in the first film.

As Bilbo searches for the Arkenstone we see that the gold seems to be cascading down on it own. There is movement under the treasure and then we see just the spikes of the dragon peeking out and then his closed eye revealed. Suddenly Bilbo realizes the danger he is in.

We get the snorting of Smaug’s nose and the opening of his eye promised at the end of The Hobbit: AUJ, but this scene is now much more precisely realized. Bilbo tries to sneak away around the side of a huge pillar when he sees movement beneath the gold on the left side of the mountain of treasure, he now understands just how mammoth this beast of a dragon really is as he calculates the distance between snout and tail.  This is a nice touch that gives the audience a sense of scale of this massive creature! Smaug then rises up out of the gold and we see him for the first time.

My thoughts on the dragon…

I think Smaug is absolute perfection. Like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Smaug is key to the success of these films. He not only needed to be a believable dragon to audiences, but he had to be a character people loved to hate! The entire Hobbit trilogy hangs on the performance of Bilbo and Smaug. Other characters in the film have been elevated beyond the measure of the story, but without these two characters, the trilogy as a whole would fail. Needless to say, Martin Freeman’s Bilbo was a prefect choice… and Smaug the Terrible is brilliantly performed by Benedict Cumberbatch and digitally rendered by Weta! I feel safe in saying that both Smaug’s appearance and performance have made him the the most believable and stylistically brilliant dragon ever seen on film.

Somehow Peter Jackson and his team of creators took the best elements of Tolkien’s Dragon and mixed them with  the latest digital technologies and creature physics to create the prefect dragon for these films. They had to walk a fine line between making him traditional, since he really is the grandfather of all fictional dragons and yet making him visually innovative and based in the real world. There are many things I did not like about this film, but Smaug was not one of them. Smaug is sheer perfection and will be the dragon to beat for many years to come! The combination of realism and fantasy have come together to create the prefect dragon in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. I have no doubt that Professor Tolkien would have been amazed and overjoyed at this version of his creation.

I have to say I love Guillermo del Toro… but I’m so glad his dragon never made it on screen. Here is a description of his Smaug…

I paused at what looked like an image of a double-bitted medieval hatchet. “That’s Smaug,” del Toro said. It was an overhead view: “See, he’s like a flying axe.” Del Toro thinks that monsters should appear transformed when viewed from a fresh angle, lest the audience lose a sense of awe. Defining silhouettes is the first step in good monster design, he said. “Then you start playing with movement. The next element of design is color. And then finally-finally-comes detail. A lot of people go the other way, and just pile up a lot of detail.”

I turned to a lateral image of the dragon. Smaug’s body, as del Toro had imagined it, was unusually long and thin. The bones of its wings were articulated on the dorsal side, giving the creature a slithery softness across its belly. “It’s a little bit more like a snake,” he said. I thought of his big Russian painting. Del Toro had written that the beast would alight “like a water bird.”

Guillermo del Toro makes beautiful dark films, but I for one am glad it was Peter Jackson that made The Hobbit trilogy!

Bilbo then slips on the Ring and we see Smaug for the next few minutes through the haze of the Rings effect. This gives him a sinister element for the conversion that follows. Much of what we hear is taken indirectly from the book… until Smaug senses the One Ring! This has caused quite the uproar among fans, because it’s such a departure from the book.

In Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth, there was never any direct communication between Sauron and Smaug that we know of, other than Gandalf’s vague assertion that the dragon might be ‘used to terrible effect’ by the Enemy. There is nothing in the Tolkien Canon the suggests that an embassy from Sauron ever approached Smaug’s lair. There is also no point in the book when Smaug becomes aware of the Ring. However, in the films, with Sauron’s sudden rise to power in Dol Guldur and his sending Azog and Bolg as his emissaries to destroy Thorin and Company before they can reach the mountain, and the fact that Smaug’s has knowledge of the Ring suggests that Smaug and Sauron have indeed been in communication in Peter Jackson’s version of events in Middle-earth.

Now, I must mention here, that I have seen The Battle of the Five Armies and in the theatrical version, there is no additional explanation given to Smaugs knowledge of the Ring. Gandalf states that the treasure and the mountains strategic position in the North are why Sauron is after the mountain, this is of course is said after the death of Smaug. Perhaps in the extended edition, more light will be shed on this.

Next, a cat an mouse game ensues as Bilbo discovers the Arkenstone and tries to take it, but we learn rather quickly that Smaug is aware of Bilbo’s plan and it simply playing with him. This is a wonderful interaction in which we get to see Smaug in all his strength and power. It is here that Bilbo is able to bear witness to Smaug’s greatest flaw… his bottomless well of pride. As this scene closes and Smaug fed up with the cat and mouse game tries to turn Bilbo into toast, we are left unsure if Bilbo has taken the Arkenstone or not… a nice bit of narrative mystery to make us look to the next film. Several key plot points occur in this exchange. Smaug exposes the vulnerable spot on his belly and Bilbo lets slip his Barrel Rider comment which will soon lead to Smaug’s attack on Lake-town. As Bilbo slips on the Ring and makes his escape, Smaug lets loose his flaming wrath. I love the idea that you can see him prepare his fiery vengeance when his chest turns red like hot coals! A beautiful detail!

In the mean time, we see the dwarves waiting outside the mountain by the door, when the mountain begins to rumble with Smaug’s fury! Balin delivers the best line in the entire film!

“That my lad is a dragon!”

He then follows up with another of my other favorite lines in the film, when Thorin refuses to go to the aid of their burgler… “His name is Bilbo!” (Balin gets all the best lines!)

It is here that the film version of these events begins to diverge significantly from The Hobbit book. In the book, Thorin and the dwarves never even sees Smaug before he takes off for Lake-town. In Tolkien’s version, Bilbo steals a silver cup while the dragon sleeps and when Smaug awakens he knows instantly that a cup has been stolen. Bilbo saves all their lives when he senses danger and makes all the dwarves come into the tunnel. Smaug flies out and burns the side of the mountain with a raging flame, eating the ponies that the dwarves rode in upon. This is how he learns that there are dwarves with Bilbo. Bilbo then goes down to meet with him again for their famous conversation. Smaug nearly burns Bilbo with flame and then exits Erebor to smash the side of the mountain and seal  the secret door. The dwarves are now trapped and have no choice but to go into the mountain in order to get out. Smaug in frustration flies off to Lake-town to kill some barrel-riders!

From a film narrative perspective there is simply no way that Thorin can’t confront Smaug. For the trilogy to work as written by the screenwriters, he must do battle with the dragon. In much the same way that PJ decided to show The Battle of the Five Armies on screen rather then have Bilbo sleep through it and be told how it ended afterwards. That would simply never work on film! Peter Jackson made the bold decision to create a confrontation with Smaug and the dwarves. Like it or not, this is what was done.

Smaug confronts Thorin and the dwarves…

I personally agree with the decision to have Thorin do battle with the dragon… however, some of the events that take place in this part of the film are some of the most over the top action sequences in all of his Middle-earth films. OK… so lets dive in…

We see Bilbo racing up the steps away from Smaug, when he runs into Thorin. We are happy to see that Thorin has come to his aid… but then Thorin immediately demands to know if he has found the Arkenstone. When Bilbo does not answer him, he bars his way with a sword! So begins the final clash of Bilbo and Thorin the will  play out in the final film. The stage is set, the pieces are moving!

Then comes another of my favorite scenes as Bilbo looks over Thorin’s shoulder. Thorin turns and sees Smaug coming for him across the vast mountains of gold. The scene is powerful and the image of Smaug pounding over the treasure and shaking all of Erebor to it’s foundation is truly a spectacle to behold on the big screen! He lets loose a massive amount of flame that engulfs everything around them. We then see Smaug chasing the dwarves as they run about, splitting up to confuse the dragon. Then there is a moment of quite stealth when the dwarves must sneak across a bridge to get to a place of escape. As they walk across the bridge, a coin drops tinkingling down and Bilbo thinks he has dropped it, but of course the coins are falling off of Smaug as crawls overhead! This is a fun scene that has caused quite a bit of controversy.

If Smaug has such an acute sense of smell and hearing, then why doesn’t he not know the dwarves are right below him. I have chosen to think that by this time the smell of dwarf is everywhere and Smaug is forced to relay on stealth to catch them, much like a cat on the hunt… but this time the mice have gotten away!

The dwarves then come to the passage in which they hope to escape… but instead they find the piled bodies of their fallen kin in front of the broken and blocked passage way. This is a dramatic moment when Thorin shows his leadership skills and rallies the devastated dwarves. He delivers his best line in the film and it’s a great bit of written dialogue!

“If this is to end in fire, then we will all burn together!”

Now we come to the final part of The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug in Erebor, where the dwarves plan to destroy the dragon with the very gold he hoards. I am of two minds about this action sequence. On one hand it’s an incredibly well conceived action sequences that gets the heart racing and delivers some of the most over the top scenes in all of Peter Jackson Middle-earth films. From a purely action movie perspective, it’s a sequence that is infused with comedy, thrills and spectacle that continues to top itself as the scene progresses to it’s dramatic conclusion. I thought the giant golden statue of the dwarf that appears to cowl Smaug and then engulfs him in liquid gold was a stroke of cinematic genius. The dragon literally becomes Smaug the Golden!

And yet on the other hand, as a fan of Tolkien’s writing I couldn’t help but feel that this was so far afield of the Professor’s Middle-earth, as to be in a totally different universe of mythology. Peter Jackson simply went off the rails on this one. For future generations, who watch these films, this particular point won’t matter much. Many will have never read the books or even care to. Much as I, as a child, loved watching The Wizard of Oz with no knowledge of the books the spawned the film. I simply enjoyed the film for the experience it offered me… and still does.

There are moments… dwarves spinning around Smaugs head in iron carts and then somehow landing on their feet, Thorin’s wheelbarrow ride on a river of molten gold, Bilbo falling amid tons of rock and stone, Thorin falling hundreds of feet with Smaug in pursuit and then landing on his nose… and at no point is anyone iseriously hurt or killed? It pushes the ‘suspension of belief’ to entirely new heights and yet at the same time it’s a glorious thrill ride!

What is to be made of this closing action sequence in The Desolation of Smaug? It is both appalling and appetizing at the same moment and one must walk upon the razors edge between these two feelings. The Tolkien fan inside of me, who spent hours reading The Hobbit and seeing it in my head as Professor Tolkien wrote it, is simply appalled at this grossly interpreted and over the top popcorn movie version that was somehow picked out of the wreckage of Tolkien’s writings. And yet… the film lover in me, who is thrilled by this slow ride up the hill of a giant rollercoaster and enjoys even more the wild plunge that follows, feels that this last section of the film borders on brilliance, both in how it was conceived and then how it was filmed.

So… what is my over all feeling about this wild action sequence… it gets both an A and an F… you might think this a cop out, but it’s exactly how I feel about it. It’s both terrible and wonderful in the same breath!

The one thing that I truly loved in this action sequence was the build up to the moment when Smaug stands before the great golden statue of the King under the Mountain. He stares into it’s golden face and lets out a small gasp in his moment of surprise. He looks confused, frightened and memorized, all at the same time. The digital animators must be given big props for delivering this scene so effectively. It’s one of my favorite moments in the entire film.

The one thing that bothered me the most was a fault in plot. When Smaug with the thief Bilbo standing right in front of  him and easy prey, he turns suddenly and flees from the mountain to attack the men of Lake-town. I suppose he could be flying out to remove the gold that now covers him, but from a narrative point of view it just doesn’t make sense to me. In the book Smaug goes to Lake-town, because he can’t get at the dwarves or Bilbo, who are hiding in the secret passage in the Mountain and he needs to release his rage and vengeance. In the movie, Smaugs sudden desires to exit the mountain leaving all his gold unattended and attack Lake-town, when Bilbo and the dwarves are still there right in front of him to chase down and kill seems ludicrous. The narrative of this scene simply does not make sense.

Now we come to the cliffhanger ending… “What have we done?”

OK… I’m coming right out of the gates and saying it… I loved the ending!

I was shocked… I was surprised… but as I thought about it, I could see it was the prefect way to end the second film. I know a lot of fans were dismayed that Smaugs ending was not a part of the second film, many even say they felt cheated… but I strongly disagree with this and I will tell you why!

From a narrative and storytelling point of view, the second act of a three part story should always end with all of your main character in dire straits. In the first act, you to establish the main characters, their relationships and the world they live in and then close with one or two events that propel the story forward. The second act is rising action and places all of the protagonist in a worsening situation with dire consequences. Then in the third act, comes the final climax that ties up all of the dramatic subplots.

Ending the second act with a cliffhanger is a perfect way to draw people into the third act or in this case the third film. Plus, it just makes sense to bring Smaug, one of the greatest antagonists of all time and a major anchor for the story into the third film. For those of you that have seen The Battle of the Five Armies it begins with a bang and never slows down until all the main plot are brought to conclusion. Plus, I just really like the ending of the second film when Smaug flies towards Lake-town after saying “I AM DEATH!”, then cutting to Bilbo looking terribly distressed as he delivering his famous line “What have we done?”, followed by a cut to black with an audible boom. A beautiful cinematic moment! Then we hear the strains of “I see fire”and up come the ending credits.

I thought it was a perfect ending… and though many of you might disagree, I am sticking by it!

In Part Nine of my in depth review of the films, I will make a short (I promise) and brief summary of the film and give it my final overall grade and my star rating. I know it’s been a long time coming, but it’s almost over and then I can begin my review of The Battle of the Five Armies!

Please go HERE to our Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review Page for all nine parts of the Mordor Review!


 December 22, 2014  Posted by at 11:09 am
  • Enrique

    When will you continue writing the “On this Day in Dol Guldur” days?

  • Well… I had been planning to do it this year, but keeping up the Movie news take a lot of time. Now with The Hobbit movie news coming to a close, i will be able to spend more time on rebuilding Mordor and my other Mordor projects.

  • I disagree that Smaug’s flight to city was pointless in movie. He wanted Bilbo and Dwarves to watch their friends suffer because of their invasion, and he even told something like this.

  • I guess for me, I was just comparing what I saw in the movie versus how it unfolded in the book. For my money the book version made more sense, but if I hadn’t read the book I would have probably seen it differently I suppose.

  • Daniel Peterson

    Good review, and I agree with both the A and F ratings, but surprised you did not make mention that Bilbo’s discovery of Smaug’s “weak spot” being completely pointless in P.J.’s version, despite its incredible importance in the original story. In truth, of course, the notion of a little bird seeing this interaction and flying off to inform Bard is rather ridiculous, and hearkens to the fact Tolkien considered this work little more than a children’s fairy story which adults were never supposed to take seriously. It was said that Tolkien intended to write a more ‘adult’ version of the Hobbit story to be more in line with the LOTR trilogy, and I have often wondered what it would have been like……. but certainly not as silly as Peter Jackson made it.

  • Daniel Peterson

    A good point. Smaug would have known that the dwarves and Bilbo could never escape him, and that his ultimate revenge against them would be all the sweeter with their knowing that they were responsible for the destruction of Lake Town and most of its inhabitants before their own certain deaths.