It May Be Titled ‘The Hobbit’, But It’s All About the Dragon

A shapeshifter, gigantic spiders, and a barrel-battle escape create exhilarating suspense in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but best of all is a deliciously devious incendiary beast.

Even films can suffer middle child syndrome. The first film in a trilogy gets lots of attention; the third, as the newest “baby”, benefits from the blockbuster strategy of saving the best for last. The one in the middle may seem to have nothing special that belongs only to it. Middle films require context provided by the first film and supply a transition into the highly anticipated finale.

Director Peter Jackson tries to alleviate this syndrome by providing his “middle children” with something special. When he helmed The Lord of the Rings cinematic trilogy, middle film The Two Towers relied a great deal on audiences having seen the first film, but its tone and structure make it a powerful central story well worth viewing on its own merits. What is surprising, then, about Jackson’s next hobbit-centric film trilogy, is that middle film The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug seems more like a collection of extraordinary stand-alone scenes rather than a unified stand-alone film.

Individually, a shapeshifter, gigantic spiders, and a barrel-battle escape, for example, create exhilarating set pieces that provide suspense as well as an excuse for the truly special effects for which Weta Workshop is well known. However, this middle film does have something special of its own — a deliciously devious incendiary beast that rules the last hour of the film. Jackson fires up the audience with a Smaug who fries the competition for best introduction of a character and makes audiences understand that the desolation is caused, not suffered, by this dragon.

Before Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and audiences meet Smaug, however, comes a lengthy chunk of the journey to the Lonely Mountain with detours for the company of dwarves (led by Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield), Gandalf the wizard (the always-excellent Ian McKellen), and title hobbit Bilbo Baggins. On their continuing quest to regain the dwarves’ lost home of Erebor, they visit the magical home of Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a bear of a man who shelters the party on their way to Mirkwood; the kingdom of wood elves (ruled by Lee Pace’s Thranduil); and Lake-town, a once-great, now-decrepit city controlled by the Master (a slyly masterful Stephen Fry) and home to future important character Bard the bowman (Luke Evans). Of these three, Mirkwood provides the greatest challenges and most exciting moments before the dragon’s arrival in the last third of the film.

Not only do the dwarves and Bilbo get lost in the pervasive gloom of Mirkwood forest, but, like the company struggling to find a path to the other side, the audience also is lulled into the almost hypnotic rhythm and filmic effects illustrating the company’s interminable wandering in circles. While Bilbo climbs a tree to look for a way out of the forest, the rest of the company disappears amid sticky webs strangling the vegetation everywhere the hobbit looks. Just as the foreshadowing creepiness reaches its climax, viewers are rewarded with the sudden appearance of an enormous, bloodthirsty spider. What makes the scene even scarier than the slashing fangs and legs of the arachnid army is the spiders’ conversation, which Bilbo, wearing the Ring to make him invisible to his foes, can suddenly hear. This scene, celebrating suspense and providing an appropriately frightening payoff, is one of the most memorable in the first two films.

Those who previously have only appreciated Martin Freeman’s gift for comedy should pay special attention to Bilbo’s best scenes in this film — and they are surprisingly dragon free. Both occur in murky Mirkwood. To help the party get their bearings, the nimble hobbit climbs a tree. Upon breaking free of the forest’s darkness, Bilbo — and the audience — can finally take a deep breath and appreciate the scenery, instead of being whisked into danger. Above the foliage, butterflies flutter in the breeze, surprising and delighting the hobbit. Freeman perfectly captures Bilbo’s exhilaration and pure joy of this unexpected idyll, and his carefree chuckle as he revels in the sunlight reminds viewers of the gentle nature of hobbits.

Moments later, once again immersed in the forest and fighting the truly terrifying spiders, Bilbo abruptly turns vicious when the Ring slips off his finger and falls to the forest floor. His swift shift toward violence is precipitated by the Ring, which clearly is affecting Bilbo at this stage of the journey. After committing ruthless slaughter to regain his temporarily lost treasure, Bilbo realizes with sickening clarity just what he has done. Freeman’s expression of growing horror encapsulates Bilbo’s awareness of what he may become. Like all great actors, Freeman requires little or no dialogue to subtly, believably convey his character’s internal dialogue. The actor’s expressive face adds layers of meaning to such scenes, which is especially important in The Desolation of Smaug because the hobbit is often shuffled toward the background during the many side stories involving men, elves, or dragon.

The company has developed a bad habit of fleeing one danger only to find themselves ensnared by another. Neither Thorin Oakenshield nor Thranduil is the most gracious of negotiators, whether as host/interrogator or guest/captive, and soon the dwarves face the prospect of a long imprisonment in the wood elves’ jail. At least for “hot dwarf” Kili (Aidan Turner), the sentence is not all that unpleasant; he meets and immediately falls for “hot elf” Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who is equally smitten. Only Legolas (and perhaps some fans) seems less than enthralled with this development. He also has his eye on the fiery elf warrior. (Orlando Bloom is surprisingly beefier than his Lord of the Rings days and makes it seem like elves may age backward; “younger” Legolas looks older than his father in this film.)

The detour into this unnecessary romantic triangle provides a reason for Tauriel to travel outside the bounds of Mirkwood and become involved in more action sequences where she can run, leap, shoot arrows with deadly precision, and add to the body count of Orcs lining the banks of Mirkwood’s river. As a character created only for the films, Tauriel obviously is meant to be a female action hero (and potential role model), but relegating her to a romance seems to be a more stereotypical use of females in film.

The highlight of the Mirkwood adventure is the dwarves’ escape from their captors and a wild ride in barrels down the river, one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s best “action scenes” in the original novel. Jackson’s adaptation tempers added violence with video game-styled action as the company struggles to stay afloat while dodging Orcs and elves.

The dwarves and Bilbo eventually make their way to the disputed territory where Smaug sleeps. By then, viewers are more than ready to meet the dragon, and he does not disappoint, looking remarkably similar to Tolkien’s drawings. CGI-spectacle Smaug (featuring the vocal and motion-capture performance of Benedict Cumberbatch) lurks and smirks as he questions the intruder who awakens him in his lair. No wonder Thorin wants to reclaim his homeland — the vast gleaming treasure would tempt anyone, and the expansive ruins of Erebor still suggest its former glory. Smaug, however, has no intention of relinquishing his horde. Instead of merely becoming a two-dimensional action-adventure villain, he retains Tolkien’s depiction of Smaug as an intelligent dragon who mentally toys with Bilbo. Cumberbatch’s silky sibilance and ability to caress as well as roar dialogue match the dynamic visuals of the enormous red dragon stalking his prey.

Meanwhile, Gandalf is busy with his own side trip. Trying to discern just who might be taking up residence in Dol Guldur, the wizard confronts a powerful if wispy Necromancer (and also encounters Cumberbatch, this time as the voice of Evil).

As with the first film, Bilbo delivers the final line of the cliffhanger as he looks toward Lake-town. He has survived meeting the dragon, but others may not be so lucky. “What have we done?” he worries as the scene fades to black. The short answer: Thrilled audiences. The longer response: Presented a series of elaborately designed action sequences interspersed with some quieter moments to provide background about intriguing new characters. Jackson may have expanded The Hobbit trilogy more than required even to incorporate original story elements as well as those borrowed from other Tolkien texts, but fans who enjoy Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth are already mourning the fact that only one more movie remains.

Such a film is meant to be seen on a cinema-size screen, but watching the DVD/Blu-ray at home at least allows fans to replay favorite scenes (or get to the dragon sooner). The DVD includes the seven-minute short film New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth, Part 2, in which the cast comments on the beautiful New Zealand locations used in The Desolation of Smaug, and viewers can virtually vacation on South Island. The Blu-ray special features take the audience to Mirkwood, Lake-town, and Dale when Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set: In the Company of the Hobbit and Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set: All in a Day’s Work. Informative behind-the-scenes production videos and a music video of the film’s theme song, “I See Fire”, complete the set.

The Desolation of Smaug expertly sets up expectations for The Hobbit: There and Back Again, due in December. This middle film may lack cohesion as an independent story, but it succeeds in entertaining audiences with brilliant scares and escapes, as well as an immensely impressive dragon.

RATING 8 / 10