Film

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.


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans
Distributor: Warner
Rated: PG-13
Studio: New Line Cinema and MGM
Release date: 2014-04-08
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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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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