Alright you guys, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is out in theaters and ready to transport you to magical worlds of wonder and awesome—providing you’re willing to look the other way on a few things.
The fact that there are points of distraction and disappointment lurking just behind the curtain in this “prequel-sequel” is no surprise, as I saw the first film of the Hobbit trilogy in the theater, and I am still scratching my head over the random insertion of two mountains engaging in a bout of fisticuffs during one of those long, drawn-out “yes, we are walking and it is treacherous” scenes (to be fair, I believe the characters were actually climbing at the time, and that’s actually a little spicier than the usual walking that LOTR fans are used to). Another mysterious aspect of the first Hobbit movie was the strange pacing that somehow felt both rushed and boring simultaneously—as if someone left the film on a “just going through the motions” autopilot by mistake (unfortunate and infuriating).
Luckily for us someone had the decency to switch off the autopilot during most of the making of The Desolation of Smaug; however, there are still a few bones to pick. The film opens on a dark and stormy night. Thorin (Richard Armitage), heir to the throne of the Dwarf King finds food and warmth at an inn, but the cold stares from a couple dangerous looking patrons hint that trouble is dogging his heels. Just as things are about to get real, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) appears, driving two would-be n’er-do-wells back into their corners. Gandalf shows Thorin a bounty for Thorin’s head that a few now-thwarted bandits had been carrying. Gandalf implores Thorin, through this forced expository scene, to make haste in retaking the throne beneath the mountain, thus uniting the kingdoms of the Dwarves once more. And then, there is a black title card that reads: “1 Year Later”
HOW LAME IS THAT!? SERIOUSLY? “ONE YEAR LATER”!? Ugh! It would have been much more badass to start this thing with a voice over of Gandalf explaining what had happened since the last film in a foreboding tone while maps and silhouettes of war and intrigue played on in a shadowy background. Or there could have been a great scene of Bilbo, years later, answering banal questions of some young, unknown innocent hobbit. It would have been a great frame—and would have nicely posed the scenario of “Bilbo as PTSD sufferer” (which is obviously the case, based on LOTR).
“But Pam,” you may ask, “isn’t the voice over/maps and shadows thing already done at the beginning of that terrible movie Reign of Fire with Matthew McConaughey? And doesn’t that PTSD flashback stuff tend to smack heavily of themes often explored in hour-long procedural dramas?” Why yes, dear reader, both of these things are true. But Peter Jackson is actually talented enough to innovate on these tired tropes and tease out something grand, which is why the “1 Year Later” title card is so frustrating. I am going to go ahead and blame this title card B.S. on one of the unknown producers. It’s probably the same douche who thought that axing Tom Bombadil from the first Lord of the Rings film was such an excellent idea.
Thankfully, things pick up after the title card. Orcs of the roughest sort, scarred and smelly-looking, rove the hills, seeking out their prey. The Orc-beasts they ride, hungry for fresh meat. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) scouts their position unseen, but just as he is about to head back and report to the others, he sees something in the fog, a dark beast, bigger than the threat of the orcs. Bilbo warns Gandalf and the clan of dwarves led by Thorin. They must evade these two threats on their quest to the Mountain. But wait—Gandalf recognizes the description of the second beast. They may find succor nearby, OR DEATH!!! Will Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves reach safety? What danger lurks in the forbidden forest? And who is this new elf chick? I don’t remember there being an elf chick from the books. What’s up with the elf chick?
That’s right. There’s an elf chick. She’s been added into the story. And no, you dilettante-hipster LOTR fans, she is NOT a character from The Silmarillion (the mythopoeic works of Tolkien edited posthumously by Tolkien’s son Christopher in the 1970s). She’s a creation of Peter Jackson and his writing partner and main squeeze Fran Walsh. Purists are no doubt furious at this addition, but I thought it was kind of nice. She’s puckish yet earnest, admired by the son of the king yet has an underdog quality about her while also being the super badass head of the Elven guard. Elf Chick, otherwise known as Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), also has romantic leanings toward one of the hotter dwarves of Bilbo’s party—which gives hope to short guys everywhere. I have been extolling the virtues of short men for years, and finally I’ve got Evangeline Lilly here to back me up.
Not only does Tauriel bring a refreshing and much needed depth of character from a female perspective—Galadriel was represented as more of a terrifying thing than a character in previous films—she also acts as a wonderful linking device for this film. The pull between her duty to the wood elves and her liking of the dwarves creates a tension that draws us further into the story and gives us something tangible to root for—where we otherwise might not have given two turds of a care. And when her favorite dwarf is injured during an escape attempt, a further draw is created as she *must* follow him to ensure he lives. Even though it isn’t Tolkien, this is excellent story dynamism and hugely aids the film.
But back to the action. If you enjoyed previous Peter Jackson action sequences, such as the crazy T-Rex/King Kong vine fight from King Kong, or the “counting dead orcs” competition between Gimli and Legolas in Return of the King, you will not be disappointed with the action sequences in Desolation of Smaug. The villains look magnificent in all their spindly, gooey, clammy, scuttley, CG yuckiness; and the fight choreography is satisfying to watch.
And don’t even talk to me about Smaug! The dragon! The awesome dragon!! Did you know that Smaug was voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlokian and Star Trekian fame? Of course you did! And did you know that he was awesome as the voice of Smaug? Making it super intense and epic? Of course! You knew all along!! How could he not!? The film is worth seeing just for the Smaug scenes alone—title card be damned!
In closing, let me offer a word to the wise. You should definitely see this film. BUT—if you are in anyway maddeningly terrified of either heights or big freaking horrifying spiders, I STRONGLY recommend avoiding this film (for there are lots of both). Also, nauseating camera pans and swoops abound, so if that sort of thing gives you a weak stomach, then don’t let your stupid best friend talk you in to sitting third-row-center. Sit in back or wait for the Blu-ray.
Also, I realized after going through the LOTR and Hobbit films once more that for whatever reason, Tolkien seems to be warning us all about the dangers of mountains. Whether it’s Balrags, dragons, mountain-fights during a climb, or the forging of evil rings—Tolkien is letting us know that epic badness happens when mountains are involved. So catch a screening of The Desolation of Smaug, and stay away from mountains! Tolkien says.