Fourteen short men traverse a forest and see wondrous things in ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’

December 31, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 31, 2013

Director Peter Jackson’s latest take on the fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien is The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. This, the second entry in Jackson’s trilogy based on The Hobbit, begins with a brief prologue setting up the quest at the heart of the story: The wise, powerful and quirky wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) arranges a meeting with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the heir to a dwarven kingdom that the dragon Smaug has conquered, dispersed and occupied.

Gandalf tells Oakenshield what he told the dwarf’s father: Rally the seven dwarven armies and drive the fire-breathing lizard from its roost in the dwarven-carved caverns beneath the Lonely Mountain. Oakenshield is willing to try this, but he has a problem. His people’s armies will only unite under the command of he who wields the Arkenstone, and that gem is among the jewels and precious metals that Smaug is lounging upon right now. Gandalf smiles upon hearing this, for he knows a thief that might be able to spirit away the Arkenstone…

Cut to the present moment. Gandalf, Oakenshield, a certain Hobbit thief (Martin Freeman) and a company of 12 dwarves are working their way toward the Lonely Mountain whilst being hunted by a band of powerful, bloodthirsty orcs. Gandalf leaves the group just before they enter the foreboding Mirkwood Forest. The short-of-stature travelers are captured first by hungry spiders and then by irate elves. Heroism by the titular Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins by name, is required in both cases to extend the quest.

The quest does continue (this is a trilogy, after all) and the stakes grow progressively larger. Jackson and his fellow screenwriters — Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro — introduce us to one Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a captain of the elvish guard whose attraction to her unattainable supervisor, a prince named Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reprising his role as the lethal archer from The Lord of the Rings), is mutual. Exchanges among these two warriors and Legolas’ remote father, King Thranduil (Lee Pace), raise the question of whether it is right, or even possible, that the elves secure their borders while evil runs rampant beyond them. The film also hints at a love triangle as one of the dwarves, Fili (Dean O’Gorman), flirts with Tauriel.

Meanwhile, Gandalf strives to discover whether a powerful enemy has returned — of course he has; after all, this is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings — and the questers find themselves infiltrating a repressive, down-on-its-heels trading community called Laketown, where their very presence attracts a variety of threats. And should Baggins and the dwarves proceed beyond that, to Lonely Mountain, they will gaze upon the desolation that the fearsome Smaug wrought years ago…

Jackson and company keep things moving pretty briskly, for the most part, but they pause for some fairly enjoyable character development along the way. Fili’s flirtation with his captor gives him more depth than any other dwarf besides Oakenshield (the leader) and Balin (the wise and knowledgeable old guy); in fact, more than halfway through the film, I was unable to name any of the other dwarves. Baggins slowly comes into his own over the course of the story. In this, the shiny golden magic ring that he found in the first entry in this trilogy (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) is mostly a blessing; it renders the Hobbit invisible. The Desolation of Smaug hints, but only hints, at the ring’s evil nature by putting some ominous whispers on the soundtrack when Baggins gazes upon or caresses it and by showing us how crazed the halfling becomes when the item briefly slips away from his grasp. If one already knows that the ring is the MacGuffin at the center of a fantasy epic, these signs are telling; if one does not, these are at worst mildly puzzling notes.

Some of the other characterization is less successful. The Desolation of Smaug all but points an enormous flashing arrow at the character who seems fated to slay Smaug (those vowels actually rhyme with “Ow!”) in the third entry of this trilogy, There and Back Again, due out in 2014. (Also, we’re basically shown the method by which the dragon will be slain.) And attempts to cast aspersions on Oakenshield’s true nature come off as rather spurious.

Now, about the relationship between this movie and the 1937 Tolkien novel on which it’s based. My memory of the book is pretty hazy, but it seems to me that Jackson, Walsh, Boyens and del Toro have strayed pretty far afield from the British writer’s original plot. While they’ve kept the premise of the story — Hobbit, wizard and 13 dwarves journey to the Lonely Mountain, where a dragon reigns amidst the ruins of a once-mighty dwarven stronghold — nearly all of the stuff involving elves seemed to me to have been invented by the filmmakers. Also, the climax of Smaug struck me as an incredibly elaborate, only-in-the-movies kind of contrivance. (Improvising on the fly, the dwarves successfully reactivate long-dormant machinery and assemble a massive structure in a matter of minutes.)

But I’m not going to crucify the movie’s crew for straying from, or even for building significant additions to, Tolkien’s canon. Sure, the film can be a bit silly at some moments and too self-serious at others. But the battle scenes are good, dynamic fun, the visuals are often stunning, and there are enough sympathetic characters to get viewers emotionally invested in the proceedings. I even found Gandalf’s solo adventure gripping, despite the fact that his presence in The Lord of the Rings is an obvious indicator that he will survive his scrape with the forces of darkness.

I should note that I haven’t seen the first Hobbit movie, An Unexpected Journey; still, I didn’t feel I missed much going into this picture. I should also note that at two hours and 41 minutes, per the Internet Movie Database, The Desolation of Smaug is actually the shortest of Jackson’s five Tolkien movies. Still, that’s a long running time, and I became a bit restless at the picture’s end, wondering if the film was going to stop now or maybe now. When the dwarves began their climactic shenanigans, my heart sank a little bit, because it became obvious that the picture had another 10 or 15 minutes to go.

In the end, I can’t recommend The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to someone who isn’t predisposed to liking fantasy adventure, or who does not pine after the pulchritudinous Bloom or Lilly. But all in all, those who enjoy fantasy should enjoy this feature. I think this is an extraordinary film, a wonderful diversion from everyday life. I’m glad I saw it, and I enjoyed it enough that I might even go watch it a second time.

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