The first two Hobbit films are very different animals. Despite The Desolation of Smaug picking up right where An Unexpected Journey left off, the second film explores much darker territory and seems willing to stay there right up until the nail-biting cliffhanger. While I absolutely loved the first film, the second film confused me for a long time with its rougher-to-swallow elements. After many repeated viewings, I have finally come to terms that they really are two chapters of one continuous story and very much two sides of the same cinematic coin. Over time I have come to appreciate these differences but I think a straightforward comparison is in order.
An Unexpected Journey is the more innocent of the two, beginning in the Shire before Bilbo has experienced any of the growing peril spreading across Middle Earth. The extended arrival of the dwarves at Bag End and their dinner time antics is undoubtedly one of my favorite scenes ever put to film. It perfectly captures the English fussiness of our titular hobbit and is a refreshingly minor nuisance compared to the trolls, wargs, black riders, orc armies, and fell beasts that will follow in the chronology.
As tremendous as The Lord of the Rings trilogy is and as much good as it did for the fantasy genre as a whole, it is morbid stuff. Legions of merciless soulless killing machines marching across the land is hard to stomach movie after movie. The lightheartedness and innocence of the first hour of An Unexpected Journey is an appreciable indulgence and something that Fellowship of the Ring had little time for.
Once the Company leaves Bag End, this playful spirit doesn’t let up. Immediately we see that these dwarves are less serious traveling companions than the likes of Boromir and Aragorn. The fact that the dwarves take bets on Bilbo’s participation in the quest provides a welcome and refreshing humor that reminds us that Middle Earth does not always have to be brooding and grimdark.
Additionally, Radagast the Brown appears into the story out of the blue. A wacky wizard clothed in floppy brown rags and the silliest grin possible, he would be totally out of place in a more self-important story. His rabbit sled and uncomfortable affinity for birds and hedgehogs may draw complaints, but you can’t argue that he isn’t a fully imagined and realized character. We already have Gandalf and Saruman as wizardly examples and Radagast fits neatly into the category of something different and altogether unexpected.
The Goblin-King as well comes across as purposefully offensive in just about every way, from his revolting character design to the blasphemous howl that apparently constitutes his singing voice. He is a foul caricature writ large, a ridiculous counterpoint to the big bad that Gandalf would later fight in the mines of Moria. Where the Balrog was demonic and scary, this guy is one big fat joke.
What An Unexpected Journey does, to varying degrees of success, is it refuses to commit to one single tone and attempts to balance the epic nature of the quest for Erebor with the comic absurdity of a uptight handkerchief-loving hobbit, a wildly disfunctional band of dwarven bachelors, and a younger brighter Middle Earth still ruled by the lesser villains of the age. While fans are still free to ritually and endlessly rewatch the brutally apocalyptic and cataclysmic events of Lord of the Rings, what we have in An Unexpected Journey is something a bit brighter if still somewhat shrouded in the looming shadow of a Sauron resurgent.
By the time the film ends, Bilbo has earned his place in the Company and made ammends with the flawed but still admirable Thorin Oakenshield. The warm feels and long hugs are there, still maintaining a deft balance between innocence, bravery, loyalty, and ridiculousness. But all of this is over when we arrive at The Desolation of Smaug. No more mountain-trekking montages or bunny-sled chases here. It’s time for serious business.
Suddenly a sense of gravitas and urgency that was partially lacking in the first film falls upon us with full force. We open with a chance meeting at Bree, filled with ominous tangible threats in the form of two grubby unwashed bounty killers. Next we see the Company pursued by Azog’s warg-riders and a menacing bear-creature. Soon Bilbo and friends are desperately lost in a hallucinogenic forest populated by arachnid nightmare fuel. The relentless violence and danger just won’t let up.
From someone who has watched An Unexpected Journey about 20 times, this sudden abandonment of the whimsical and plodding pace for menace and slaughter is quite jarring. Replacing the wise and cautious elves of Rivendell, Desolation introduces the racist isolationist North Korea of the elven world, the Woodland Realm. Contemptibly vain Thandruil, gruff executioner Legolas, and a city full of slovenly drunks do little to expand our wonder and appreciation for elven culture. Tauriel is the one bright counterexample in a culture steeped in violent self-preservation.
I’m not saying I don’t enjoy and appreciate The Desolation of Smaug, but it does take some getting used to. Nowhere is this more necessary than in the changing relationship between Thorin and the rest of the company. Whereas he supposedly earned Thorin’s respect by the end of the first film, we see pretty quickly that this blossoming comradery is short-lived. Just as the ring corrupts the relationship between the Fellowship and the Ringbearer, the trophies of Erebor and its crown jewel poison the friendship between Bilbo and Thorin.
It’s one thing to watch your heroes fight a sea of hybrid orc soliders, it’s another thing to see the heroes lose faith in one another and betray the very bonds of friendship for which they have risked their own lives. Thorin’s path toward the Dark Side is hasty and without remorse. The heir of Durin leaves behind his nephews and fellow heirs Fili and Kili without a second thought. He unflinchingly sends in Bilbo to probable death by fire. He even interrogates his burglar at swordpoint, viciously seeking the Arkenstone above all else.
The hopes and dreams that the dwarves shared in Bag End have come to fruition but at the expense of Thorin’s sanity and his friendships developed over the course of their many adventures. Our royal hero craves only riches and he will sacrifice Lake-town to get them. Who knows what he will do in the next movie?
Such disparate tones between films belong partially to the source material and partially to the imagination of the screenwriters fleshing out this expanded narrative, but ultimately what we end up with on screen is the story of a group of dwarves robbed of their kingdom who travel further into the heart of darkness and watch as their leader slowly descends into madness, all as seen through the eyes of an unseasoned hobbit. And since much death is coming, I suppose we should be glad to be prepared for such.
Let’s look at a few further points of comparison.
Both films feature one over-the-top action sequence chock full of gags, CGI animation, battles, beheadings, and improbable escapes. In An Unexpected Journey this occurs in the goblin tunnels when Gandalf suddenly appears and orders the dwarves to fight their way out. The extended chase and battle scene shows goblins swinging, climbing, falling, attacking, and dying. Each dwarf gets a moment or two to show off their fighting prowess and the sheer insanity of the sequence adds up to a wild and memorable ride.
Though some have compared it to a video game, the escape from the clutches of the Great Goblin is a visually interesting sequence that pulls out all the stops for the sake of fun. I suppose there is more simple and less feisty way to have gone about it, but I’m glad that they tried something new for how the Company gets through the rickety goblin shantytown.
In The Desolation of Smaug the filmmakers up the ante with the now infamous barrel sequence. Inserting the Company inside of a skirmish between elves and orcs, what could easily have been a relaxing float down the river turns into a life-or-death contest of survival. Weaponless and at the mercy of the current, the dwarves narrowly fend off a huge pack of bloodthirsty orcs led by one supremely ugly son-of-an-Azog. This moment gives Legolas and Tauriel a chance to really shine as they combat Dol Guldur’s finest. Just as in the escape from Goblintown, the barrel sequence hits moments of sillyness and unbelievability. However the sheer inventiveness and unfettered exhilaration keeps these two risky sequences afloat. It’s gigantic moments like this, too big for books or television, that make movies special.
A Wizard’s Sidequests
Gandalf receives his own mission in this trilogy and the two films make sure to make a big deal about showcasing his exploits. An Unexpected Journey reunites the grey wizard with some familiar faces from Lord of the Rings. Seeing Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman all in the same room talking together caused quite a few brains to explode. Even though they are really just spouting exposition, the calibre of the acting and intense nostalgia dating back to December 2001’s Fellowship of the Ring is almost too much to handle. Seeing Gandalf defer to the wily Saruman is both frustrating and awesome. The previously unseen amity between Lady Galadriel and Gandalf is equally pleasant, giving us new insight into the wizard’s choice of burglar. We still don’t know exactly what all the talk of the Dwarven rings is about in the Extended Edition, but it anticipates more revelation about the nature of Sauron’s growing influence. All of this extra material isn’t necessary for a story about Bilbo’s little journey, yet it is unadulterated fun for those of us dying to see more of Middle-Earth and committed to watching these films over and over until entropy swallows the universe.
In The Desolation of Smaug, Gandalf continues his adventure by teaming up with Radagast to explore the High Fells where the corpses of the nine Nazgul supposedly rest. Visually dazzling and musically haunting, Gandalf’s ascent to the tomb’s entrance is dizzingly incredible. More time with the brown wizard is quite welcome (although we must assume that fan favorite Sebastian at still at home recovering.) The relationship between the two wizards is developed a bit further, showing Gandalf as the more dominant instigator and Radagast as the more subservient ally. Finally Gandalf ventures alone into the abandoned fortress where the enemy has made his home and confronts the hidden evil lurking there. He battles Sauron, a ball of expanding light against overwhelming mist and shadow, losing badly and getting locked in a cage. The conclusion to this wizard’s auxiliary adventures will have to wait for yet another film. However we can hold out hope that all of this setup will result in a hefty payoff.
Both films make sure to balance their extensive casts with some ample attention given to one very hobbit-centric sequence highlighting the ingenuity of Master Baggins. An Unexpected Journey gives us this in the tense verbal confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum. The game of riddles would be nothing without the dynamic interplay of emotion, body language, and personality created by Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis. Somehow the murderous deformities of Gollum are loveable, while the nervous confidence of Bilbo come across as funny and authentic. This scene is worth the price of admission, recapping all the best things about our hobbit protagonist and recreating the hideous perfection that is the creature Gollum.
In Desolation Bilbo takes center stage again as he peruses the dragon’s lair. Whereas Gollum was more or less Bilbo’s equal in size and ability, the fire-breathing, dwarf-eating, town-razing Smaug is something else altogether. This is 10 levels above tricking Gollum. Against Smaug the hobbit must employ flattery, deception, and feigned ignorance as he buys the needed time to acquire the Arkenstone. Despite his invulnerability and strength, the dragon is hopelessly vain and apparently somewhat bored. Bilbo manages to fight off his fears just long enough to accomplish his task, albeit in his quintessentially quirky manner. The growls of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug do impeccable justice granting an incomparable ferocity to Erebor’s worst nightmare.
These two scenes are primarily psychological in nature, testing the strength of Bilbo by pitting him against two sinister forces of corruption and forcing him to outwit them through intelligence alone. Treated with delicate care and an almost theatrical flourish, these two confrontations elevate what could have just been another plot moment into iconic turning points in the history of Middle-Earth.
Although not terribly different than the LOTR trilogy, both installments of The Hobbit manage to leave us with quite an open-ended conclusion, a sort of non-ending. An Unexpected Journey finishes by teasing a sleeping dragon stirring under a pile of gold. Yet it still manages to come up with a narratively satisfying resolution between Bilbo and Thorin atop the Carrock. All of this comes after a climatic assault from Azog and a dramatic rescue by eagle. It’s a powerful ending despite being a last minute addition shot during pick ups. A lot of things happen in the first film and the last words spoken are Bilbo’s: “I do believe the worst is behind us now.” Knowing the terrors of Mirkwood and Smaug waiting up ahead, the irony is palpable.
Much is still left undecided at the end the first film. Gandalf’s concerns over Dol Guldur and the Necromancer are patently on hold. Who can say what sorcery is still going on there? Azog and his minions are alive somewhere, perhaps regrouping and planning their next move against the Company. Thorin’s madness, mentioned a bit more in the Extended Edition, remains yet unrealized. And of course, Smaug and his vast riches await. It’s not so very different from Sam and Frodo crossing the shore at the end of Fellowship of the Ring.
But for every unanswered question in An Unexpected Journey, there are of course seemingly three more at the cruel climax of The Desolation of Smaug. After a rousing effort by the dwarves to smother Smaug in molten gold, he bursts through the gates of Erebor with his sights on the poor men, women, and children of the lake. Bilbo says, “What have we done?” Cut to black.
So many loose ends. Where to begin?
Back in Lake-town Kili is barely healed from his wound, Tauriel at his side. Next to them are Fili, Oin, Bofur, and Bard’s two girls. How will they escape from the coming inferno?
Bard is locked away while his son Bain has hidden the black arrow, the one last weapon that can defeat Smaug. How will Bard escape, grab the arrow, and get to the windlance? Do any of these people in Lake-town really stand a chance?
Legolas appears to have made it to safety, riding across the bridge to land hot on the heels of Bolg and his riders. Will he catch up to them or will they escape his grasp once again?
Back in Dol Guldur, Gandalf is defeated and caged, ostensibly waiting for Galadriel and reinforcements to arrive. A massive army of orcs march out toward the Lonely Mountain, implying the imminent battle that names the next film. What is Sauron’s endgame here?
On the slopes of Erebor, Bilbo watches in horror as he sees what their quest has unleashed. He holds the Arkenstone. What will he do with it next in the aftermath of the destruction? Behind him Thorin and the remaining dwarves stand in the newly vacated mountain kingdom, their plans uncertain.
There are other characters to consider as well. Is Thranduil and his army back in the Woodland Realm or have the wood-elves decided to venture into the geopolitical intricacies of the mountain region too?
What of the Master of Lake-town and his sniffling sidekick, will they survive the flames to come?
The last two movies took their time in establishing a huge list of political and military players spanning the breadth of Middle-Earth. We have the entire White Council, the orc commanders Azog and Bolg, the Necromancer/Sauron in Dol Guldur, the goblins of the Misty Mountains, the eagles, the spiders, the wood-elves, the men of the Lake, the resurrected Nazgul, Beorn the Skinchanger, the Company of Thorin Oakenshield, and the briefly mentioned dwarves of the Iron Hills under Dain. This is an insane amount of people to keep track of. In all likelihood, every single group on that list are going to make some kind of appearance and impact in the next film.
If An Unexpected Journey cracked open the door a bit, then The Desolation of Smaug just went ahead and kicked the whole thing down. Essentially what these two films have done is placed a tremendous burden on film three to answer all our questions in a fulfilling, logical and unforgettable way. It’s a staggeringly ambitious task and I hope they pull it off.