El Hobbit Smaug Critical Thinking

If “An Unexpected Journey” felt like nearly three hours’ worth of throat clearing and beard stroking, the saga gets fully under way at last in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the similarly massive but far more purposeful second chapter in Peter Jackson’s latest Tolkien enterprise. Actually shorter than the first film by nine minutes, this robust, action-packed adventure benefits from a headier sense of forward momentum and a steady stream of 3D-enhanced thrills — culminating in a lengthy confrontation with a fire-breathing, scenery-chewing dragon — even as our heroes’ quest splits into three strands that are left dangling in classic middle-film fashion. Jackson’s gargantuan undertaking can still feel like completist overkill at times, but that won’t keep the Middle-earth enthusiasts who pushed the first “Hobbit” film past the $1 billion mark worldwide from doing the same with this Dec. 13 release, which should see Warners’ and MGM’s coffers overflow like Erebor’s.

Although Jackson’s “Hobbit” pics have maintained an impressive visual continuity with his incomparable “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (technological upgrades like 3D, Imax and high frame rates notwithstanding), the fundamental difference between these two series may be as simple, yet instructive, as the contrasting stories they tell. Whereas the “Rings” movies felt as pure, vital and heroic as the Fellowship’s mission itself, this three-part prequel can’t help but seem like a more mercenary endeavor as it drags out Tolkien’s slender tale of a band of dwarfs seeking to reclaim a lost fortune. Good and evil are still very much at stake, sometimes grippingly so, but even the staunchest Tolkien loyalists may feel they’re on an overly protracted journey to an inevitably less exciting destination.

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Still, “The Desolation of Smaug” reps a major improvement on its predecessor simply by virtue of picking up at a more eventful place in the narrative, and as scripted by the returning team of Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro (who was slated to direct at one point during “The Hobbit’s” troubled production history), the film immediately evinces a livelier pace and a heightened sense of urgency. The writers’ key structural innovation here is to incorporate material from “The Quest of Erebor,” one of Tolkien’s supplemental “Unfinished Tales,” starting with a prologue that flashes back to a secret early meeting between the noble dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the gray wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Together these unlikely allies lay out a plan to recover the powerful Arkenstone and reclaim the dwarfs’ underground kingdom from the clutches of the foul dragon Smaug.

Crucial to their success will be the participation of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the mild-mannered but resourceful Hobbit chosen to accompany Gandalf, Thorin and 12 other dwarfs to the Lonely Mountain, as recounted in “An Unexpected Journey.” The story proper resumes with the travelers receiving shelter and supplies from gruff skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) in preparation for their trek through the black forest of Mirkwood. It’s here that Jackson pulls out the first of many stops: When Gandalf departs on a private errand, Bilbo and friends are left to do battle with an army of hideous giant spiders, in a scene so creepily visceral (especially in 3D) that it makes Frodo’s tussle with Shelob in “The Return of the King” look like a romp in the Shire.

The sense of danger rarely flags as the company is rescued and imprisoned by the forces of Thranduil (Lee Pace), haughty king of the Wood-elves and father of a familiar face, the dashing warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reprising his old role with a more impetuous air but the same deadly aim). Middle-earth purists will find plenty of cause for griping here, not merely because Legolas never appeared in the original novel, but because the screenwriters have taken the further liberty of devising an entirely new character, the elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, almost a dead ringer here for Liv Tyler’s Arwen), as a tentative love interest for Kili (Aidan Turner), probably the tallest and most handsome dwarf in Thorin’s party. The problem isn’t that Jackson has dared to tamper with Tolkien’s sacred text, but rather that he has done so to relatively minor effect; although these character additions are meant to up the dramatic stakes and foster a sense of continuity with the “Rings” movies, the emotional gains are minimal.

In pure action terms, the picture’s indisputable high point arrives when Bilbo leads the dwarfs on a daring escape from Mirkwood, floating downriver in barrels while fending off some particularly vicious orcs; it may be a Roaring Rapids-style theme-park ride in the making, but the sequence is thrillingly sustained, orchestrated with a giddy B-movie exuberance that feels like vintage Jackson. From there, things settle down somewhat as the travelers, aided by a wily bargeman (Luke Evans), smuggle themselves into Laketown, a strikingly designed waterfront village that suggests an old English variation on Venice. Overseen by a drunken, venal master (an unkempt Stephen Fry), this once-thriving center of commerce has fallen on hard times since Smaug took over the nearby Lonely Mountain, although the depressed villagers retain their hope in an old prophecy foretelling the dragon’s demise.

At a certain point, “The Desolation of Smaug” becomes a veritable treatise on the different geopolitical factions of Middle-earth: the elves with their hostile, isolationist stance; the humans of Laketown with their desire for prosperity, democracy and ethical governance; and the dwarfs with their yearning for a once-glorious ancestral homeland. It’s weighty, not especially stirring stuff, but necessary insofar as it foreshadows the showdown to come in next year’s “The Hobbit: There and Back Again”; in similar fashion, Gandalf’s secret mission, adapted here from “The Quest for Erebor,” plays a crucial role in anticipating the events of “The Lord of the Rings.”

But the strongest point of connection between this adventure and those yet to come is the Hobbit himself, specifically his growing fascination with the mysterious artifact he acquired in “An Unexpected Journey.” Even at this early stage, the ring’s insidious pull is unmistakable, and Freeman allows a few dark shadings to creep into his otherwise charming embodiment of Bilbo Baggins, whose gradual transformation from reluctant tag-along into stealthy and reliable asset helps sustain viewer engagement through the picture’s occasional laborious stretches. The journey builds to a suspenseful peak as Bilbo finds himself eye-to-eye with the imposing Smaug himself (voiced in seething, unctuous tones by Benedict Cumberbatch), even if their drawn-out confrontation and the dragon’s endless monologues dissipate the tension somewhat en route to thecliffhanger ending.

As ever, in terms of logistical mastery and marshaling of resources in service of a grandly involving bigscreen entertainment, one couldn’t ask for a better ringmaster (so to speak) than Jackson. There’s an unmistakable pleasure in being transported back to his Middle-earth, in being cushioned by the lush strains of Howard Shore’s score and dazzled by the elaborately detailed sets created by production designer Dan Hennah and his team, seamlessly integrating Weta’s topnotch visual effects. Although Andy Serkis’ inimitable computer-aided performance as Gollum goes missing this time around, the actor once again serves as second unit director, as he does on the other two “Hobbit” films as well.

The New Zealand landscapes look as majestic as ever in Andrew Lesnie’s richly textured lensing, which retains all its dreamlike luster in the standard 24-frames-per-second version screened for review. It’s hard to imagine the 48fps version, which drained so much of the magic from “An Unexpected Journey,” doing much to enhance the experience here, especially given the marvelous tactility of the imagery, from the layers of gossamer webs in the spider-attack sequence to the mountains of gold shifting beneath Bilbo’s feet in the Erebor sequence. In these scenes, the immersive, eye-tickling quality of the 3D is especially apparent, though there are also a few in-your-face sight gags — an arrow flying through the screen, a bumblebee hovering close enough to swat away — that exemplify this particular trilogy’s rough-and-tumble spirit.

Film Review: 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug'

Reviewed at Mann Chinese 6, Hollywood, Dec. 1, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 160 MIN.

Production:

A Warner Bros. release of a New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures presentation of a Wingnut Films production. Produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson. Executive producers, Alan Horn, Toby Emmerich, Ken Kamins, Carolyn Blackwood. Co-producers, Philippa Boyens, Eileen Moran.

Crew:

Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. Camera (color, widescreen, 3D), Andrew Lesnie; editor, Jabez Olssen; music, Howard Shore; production designer, Dan Hennah; supervising art director, Simon Bright; art directors, Andy McLaren, Brad Mill, Brian Massey; set decorators, Ra Vincent, Bright; costume designers, Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey, Richard Taylor; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), Tony Johnson; supervising sound editors, Brent Burge, Chris Ward; sound designers, David Farmer, Dave Whitehead; re-recording mixers, Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick; armor, weapons, creatures and special makeup, Taylor; senior visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri; visual effects supervisor, Eric Saindon; visual effects, Weta Digital; stunt coordinator, Glenn Boswell; animation supervisors, David Clayton, Eric Reynolds; lead stereographer, Sean Kelly; associate producers, Matthew Dravitzki, Amanda Walker; assistant director, Carolynne Cunningham; second unit director, Andy Serkis; casting, Amy Hubbard, John Hubbard (U.K.), Victoria Burrows, Scot Boland (U.S.), Liz Mullane, Miranda Rivers (New Zealand), Ann Robinson (Australia).

With:

Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom, Mikael Persbrandt, Sylvester McCoy, Aidan Turner, Dean O'Gorman, Graham McTavish, Adam Brown, Peter Hambleton, John Callen, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, Ryan Gage, John Bell, Manu Bennett, Lawrence Makoare. (English, Elvish, Orcish dialogue)

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"So began a battle that none had expected; and it was called The Battle of the Five Armies, and it was very terrible." -J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Hobbit"

The "very terrible" battle takes up only one chapter in Tolkien's novel and is the majority of the action in Peter Jackson's final entry in "The Hobbit" trilogy. It's a stunner of a sequence, although it also illuminates the flawed logic of stretching out Tolkien's book into three installments. What is the real story? How do we get from A to B? And, crucially, why do we care? 

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And where is Bilbo Baggins in all of it? The novel is concise, humorous, with a dark periphery, and even in the midst of extremely tense moments, we have Bilbo, a tut-tutting little homebody, wondering how the heck he got involved in all of this nonsense in the first place. There's not enough Bilbo in "The Battle of the Five Armies." The story misses his presence. The film's first mildly humorous moment, a line reading from Martin Freeman, comes almost 40 minutes in, and it's refreshing, but it highlights the humorlessness of the rest. There are some wonderful sequences in "Battle of the Five Armies", and the attention to detail is breathtaking (each different space rendered with thrilling complexity), but the film feels more like a long drawn-out closing paragraph rather than (like "The Desolation of Smaug") a vibrant stand-alone piece of the story.

"The Battle of the Five Armies" picks up where "Desolation of Smaug" left off: Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) has burst free into the air, and descends onto the helpless people of Laketown in a blitzkrieg of fire. Bard (Luke Evans) becomes the natural leader of the traumatized refugees, who straggle around dazed at the destruction of their homes. An endless line of devastated people trail up the dizzying slopes towards the Lonely Mountain, where they hope to receive compensation for all they have lost. Meanwhile, the Dwarf contingency, along with Bilbo, hole themselves up in the Mountain, protecting the treasure, most of the dwarves uneasy about the increasingly paranoid leadership of Thorin (Richard Armitage).

Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett return, briefly, for a psychedelic scene of mortal combat with the ring wraiths that doesn't seem to have much to do with anything (although it is clearly supposed to be important), and Gandalf (Ian McKellan) returns from imprisonment to the field of battle. Tauriel the elf (Evangeline Lilly) is not given much to do, except love a dwarf, a big no-no in her world. She speaks about love repeatedly, softly and wondrously, and every time she does the entire film deflates en masse. Romantic love has nothing to do with the story overall, and the love subplot feels so obligatory that it's practically condescending.

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The real story is about greed, what Tolkien termed "dragon-sickness," and when Jackson focuses on that aspect, "Battle of the Five Armies" finds its footing. It's a strong theme, Shakespearean in scope, perfectly exemplified in one nightmare sequence in which Thorin, lost to "dragon-sickness," greedy and jumpy, finds himself sucked into a monstrous whirlpool of thick molten gold. Everyone who has read the book knows that Thorin loses it once he has the gold under his care, but Jackson imagined it in a way that is surreal and visceral.

When the battle finally comes, it is tremendous. Armies swoop towards one another across a vast plain, each group displaying their own intricate maneuvers and battle strategies, wielding their own specific weaponry, making one think it could be a deleted scene from John Woo's "Red Cliff," or that a fussy Middle Earth equivalent of John Keegan had been a consultant on the film, providing information on how the dwarf infantry worked, and how the elves moved in formation. The sequence is an enormous pantomime of carnage that somehow maintains its sense of spatial relations and emotional tension (there is a terrific standoff between Thorin and the head Orc on a sheet of ice near a treacherous frozen waterfall).

Peter Jackson has devoted an enormous part of his life to the creation of these films, and taken all together they are a major accomplishment. "The Hobbit" may have been better served by being a single film: by forcing the action to be condensed into a single through-line, the storytelling would have more urgency, there would be less room for any "fat" on the story, there would be no detraction from its overall themes. The world-building aspect of the films is thrilling, and there are spaces created in all three of "The Hobbit" films that are unforgettable. 

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But that magic something is missing in "Battle." There are glimpses of it, glimpses of true poignancy and emotion: the friendship between Thorin and Bilbo, Bilbo turning back to look at the row of dwarves standing in the doorway, the last conversation with Gandalf, and the final moment of the film. These moments are lovely; these moments are presented concisely, strongly and openly. There, there is the story.

Tolkien understood the appeal of home, of a nice pipe and a cozy fire, of being surrounded by those who know you, where life is safe and your role is set. Bilbo Baggins is thrust out of his comfort zone, and must come up with the goods in extraordinary circumstances. Frodo had the same role in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. These journeys are epic, and yet they are grounded in those homey details that make us understand and sympathize. Hobbits are constantly underestimated. They underestimate themselves. Tolkien's work taps into a great universal anxiety: would I be up to a similar task? How would I fare if I were called? Would I be brave? Or would I cave? At its best, Jackson's films dig into those questions. "The Desolation of Smaug," part two in the trilogy, which this reviewer loved, is the strongest of the three films, because it never forgets that at the heart of it is a small creature who is overwhelmed by fear, and yet who must be brave anyway.

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