We now rejoin our little man on the rocks of some forsaken place, hunted by monsters riding other monsters and clinging to life by a thread. Before we leave him again, he will have traveled many more miles, eluded these monsters a half-dozen times and encountered a half-dozen different kinds of monsters including giant spiders and, finally, a gigantic dragon. And he will have unleashed two powers he fears he can’t control: one has wings and breathes fire; the other sits in his jacket pocket and is made of gold. All in the line of duty for Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), one of the two title characters of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), the second of three movies adapted by Peter Jackson from the book by J.R.R. Tolkien.
The second title character, the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), is the prize at the end of the movie. Hyped over nearly two movies, when we finally get a good look at him, sleepily emerging from the bottom of a pile of gold, he doesn’t disappoint. Smaug is the catalyst for the entire story, the reason Bilbo is on his unexpected journey. His desolation stretches from charred cities and destroyed mountain halls to the psyche of Thorin (Richard Armitage), the would-be dwarf king, had Smaug not uprooted the dwarf kingdom and used their mountain fortress as his chaise lounge. When we last left Thorin and Bilbo, they and 11 other dwarfs were on their way to the mountain to steal a precious jewel from Smaug, one that would allow for Smaug’s destruction, but they find themselves tied up with hideous orcs who are out to kill them.
The orcs are under the command of a mysterious figure, one that presents a far greater global threat than just one dragon in a mountain.But that is the concern of Gandalf, the wizard, (Ian McKellen), who leaves the group for much of the movie to investigate a darkness he senses creeping over the world. This doesn’t really leave Bilbo and the dwarfs too shorthanded because, well, they’re always that way, and they can take care of themselves—as they do when they are attacked by spiders, imprisoned by elves and hunted, always hunted, by those tenacious orcs. They finally do reach the mountain just as Gandalf is finding out about the mysterious force and its nefarious plans, and just when it seems like it’s all going to come to a head, the football is yanked away from us and we are invited to tune back in next Christmas for the thrilling conclusion.
Revisiting my thoughts on the first Peter Jackson Hobbit movie, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), I was annoyed to see how many of the problems that bedeviled that movie are still around this time. It’s as if they didn’t even read my review (actually, all the movies were shot at the same time, so I’ll maintain they did read it and realized, to their shame, they couldn’t make the appropriate changes). I’m still dismayed by the pairing of cartoon violence with gruesome consequences and characters who are able to traipse the landscape in inventive, balletic and truly impossible ways, navigating tree limbs, floating barrels and rooftops in breathless but ludicrous bounds but who exercise their exhilarating bursts of physical fiction at the service of realistic and gruesome gore. Moment after moment of elves and dwarfs engaged in Bugs Bunny routines that climax with Bugs holding the severed head of a poor orc or putting an arrow through some other poor orc’s eye, heart or throat.
If the violence has me referring to the orcs, who are uniformly nasty and hideous, constantly with an eye missing, as the “poor orcs,” there’s a problem. It undercuts the breathless delight of the creative action and puts the whole enterprise in bad taste, like having Baryshnikov star as Patrick Bateman in a ballet adaptation of American Psycho. It’s fun to watch Wile E. Coyote, standing on a plank at the bottom of a drop then being lifted in the air when a weight hits the other side of the plank, and see Wile E. catapulting into severe pain, from which he stumbles away, of course, birds fluttering about his head. There’s a reason, however, that this routine, which is lifted into The Desolation of Smaug, doesn’t end with Wile E.’s head separated from his body.
My complaints about An Unexpected Journey included a feeling that there wasn’t enough plot to carry the movie’s running time, that too many moments had to be fluffed up with portentous language. That exists here too but to a lesser extent. There’s more going on in Smaug, the table having been set (at some length) in Journey; it’s time to enjoy the feast. Dessert, by the way of the final showdown with Smaug (I guess the group’s tussle with the dragon in this movie, which dominates the last 45 minutes is just a mini-final showdown) will have to wait until The Hobbit: There and Back Again (2014), but the work of the first movie pays off in the second. There’s still some drag, primarily in the middle section when our band gets tied up with elves led by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and a subplot about Tauriel’s abortive romance with one of the dwarfs—forbidden, I suppose, because of the logistics of the height difference.
I come to learn that this section (among others) is embellished by Jackson and his team from appendixes and other stories of Tolkien and does not exist in the book The Hobbit. This book is the only published trip I have personally taken to Middle-Earth, but having read the book an elf’s age ago, I chalked up the number of unfamiliar sequences to a lack of memory on my part. These inventions and additions are the root of the movie’s obsession with the One Ring, which is central to Tolkein’s subsequent novels and the movies they inspired, but is of little consequence in The Hobbit book. Here, ring lore pervades every aspect and the presence of Legolas, a prominent character in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, provides a link. The elf sequence is helped by Lee Pace hamming it up as the elf king Thranduil, dressed in a sparkly jumpsuit gifted to him by one of Ziggy Stardust’s visits to Middle-Earth, who has spent his elfin immortality perfecting bitchy eyebrow raises and the ability to draw out the end of his sentences.
In fact, for a movie about goblins, it’s impressively well acted, especially given a script that’s designed for exposition not style. Besides Freeman’s bemusing and embarrassed competence and McKellen’s tap dance of twitchy ominousness and warm paternalism, I enjoyed the duo of Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage as the poobah of a dumpy town and his toady, who gleefully create a pathetic portrait of the sad lengths men will go to have slightly more than their fellow man. Fry, who is all combover and bad teeth, complains bitterly about his subjects and their constant whining for “food and shelter.” Pay close attention to the number of images—paintings, statues—that are erected to this vainglorious vizier.
It’s this evidence of the artistry, and certainly craftsmanship and creativity, that goes into the visual scheme of the movie (although, during a watery escape there is a brief and totally inexplicable mixture of the high-quality, high-sheen look of much of the movie with low-quality, Go Pro footage fixed to a barrel floating through rapids, it was so bizarre it was a shock), to say nothing of the detail, that makes Jackson’s movie rise above what is. There’s so much invested in each moment that even when the moment is, strictly speaking, pointless, as many of them are, it still is brought to you with the most ardent sincerity. That’s an admirable feature, and while the decision to split these movies into three 3-hour epics when one would have done the trick forces Jackson to belabor, it’s a belabor of love.