For fans hoping for a quicker, more action-oriented prequel to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug will be a welcome relief. Picking up soon after the evens of the first third of Jackson’s The Hobbit, we’re ushered into a battle with giant spiders, the conflict between Dwarves and Elves, and finally, in the last third of the film, into the presence of Smaug the dragon (Cumberbatch’s third film of the year!)
I’ve never been able to get into the first of Jackson’s Hobbit films. I loved the three LOTR films, but I’ve fallen asleep (in the theater and at home) trying to watch what was a largely drawn-out exploration of Gandalf’s arriving with a quest for Bilbo (Freeman) and Thorin Oakenshield’s band of dwarves. Thankfully, the action is intense: the selfless way that Bilbo puts himself in harms way allows for some serious excitement, and the way we recognize the impact of using the Ring on Bilbo without needing a half-hour long explanation.
While that is entertaining, the interaction between the dwarves and elves made me sit up straight. While we can see these things painted clearly in movies about the Civil War (or the 1960s), or Don Cheadle’s Hotel Rwanda, here we have an exploration of racism/classicism in a fantasy setting that allows us to be divorced from feeling like it’s about us… but the elves and dwarves certainly treat each other the way that subgroups of a population tend to treat each other.
This makes the love triangle between Jack’s girlfriend, er, the elf Tauriel (Lilly), the elf Legolas (a fan favorite Bloom), and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), who is “taller than the average dwarf,” even more interesting. It’s like Romeo & Juliet in the middle of the LOTR, and while it shows some solution to the racism we’re seeing… it seemed really unnecessary. But it does ratchet up plenty of tension, and lets us see Legolas differently.
Still, the main flow is about getting to the mountain (aren’t we always trying to get to a mountain in these movies???) I was determined to see the Desolation of Smaug solely because I think Cumberbatch is an actor on the rise, and his vocal talents meshed with the CGI depiction of Smaug is righteously entertaining. Freeman’s acting has to be mentioned, and not just to shine some light on Sherlock where he and Cumberbatch interact. He carries this which is predominantly played against a digital background, and allows us to see the way that Smaug is a multi-faceted ball of greed and violence.
Overall, this reminds me of The Empire Strikes Back. We’re supposed to feel desolation as the credits roll, but that leads to one of my biggest problems with it: for the most part, even non-literary audiences know that the story doesn’t end here or too poorly because of who we know survives. (I don’t think that takes a lot of overthinking.) While we might like that J.R.R. Tolkien’s story is getting the complete work-up, it’s still mind-blowing that the shortest, least interesting book gets a three-film deal, while the other, more interesting movies, were cut and trimmed. So, we have a film that’s plus-Tauriel (and one of the few women in film) and a three-film-package when the studio knows the LOTR trilogy made plenty of money…
I’ll see it again anyway. It’s just that fun. The spiders, the orc battle, and the Smaug-Bilbo exchange are just that worth it. But like Strikes Back, we’ll probably rewatch it because it connects us to the stunning conclusion. Stay tuned…