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Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug



Previously, on The Hobbit... a company of thirteen Dwarves, including their once and future king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellan), and their hired-on burglar Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), set off to find a mountain full of gold and liberate it from the dragon that sleeps beneath it. They didn't quite get there, for this is a very, very long unexpected journey. Our vertically challenged adventurers are still in the midst of their quest as we catch up with them in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the expansive middle chapter of Peter Jackson's expansive, unexpected trilogy. Jackson himself makes a brief cameo at the onset of The Desolation of Smaug, as we witness a flashback in the Prancing Pony of how Gandalf came upon the company of Thorin Oakenshield. Gandalf's primary function in Smaug is to provide set up for events to come; he later abandons the Dwarves for a side mission where he comes face to face - eye to eye literally - with the returning Sauron. We, of course, can't share in Gandalf's shock and dismay, seeing how we found out a decade ago how it all turns out with Sauron. 

Thorin and his Dwarf chums continue to get in all sorts of sticky wickets. They are chased by a skin changing man bear, cocooned and nearly eaten by giant spiders, imprisoned by Elves, hunted by Orcs, and are nearly roasted alive by a dragon. They get out of most of these fine messes thanks to Bilbo, who has with him the One Ring he took from Gollum in the previous film. The One Ring may be slowly corrupting his soul, but it also makes Bilbo invisible and thus makes sneaking around a lot easier. Dwarves literally can't sneak around to save their own lives; even when Bilbo is breaking them out of the Elven hoosegow in the middle of the night, the Dwarves can't keep their voices down. No such thing as an 'indoor voice' for Dwarves. The Dwarves, however, are known quitters who only try things once and then bail. When their lifelong dream of opening the hidden door of their mountain doesn't quite work out as they thought, they quickly give up and sulk off. It is thanks to Bilbo, who actually thinks about stuff, to figure out how to find the keyhole and open the door to the mountain. The grateful Dwarves respond by pushing Bilbo alone into the mountain to face the dragon, all the while telling him how courageous he is as they sit out in the sidelines. 

So it's easy to understand why the Elves hate Dwarves and vice versa. When the Elves save the Dwarves from the giant spiders and take them prisoner, we meet a proud new Elf king, Thranduil (Lee Pace), the father of Legolas (Orlando Bloom). Thorin and Thanduil have a brief negotiation that quickly devolves into the two of them yelling at each other. It's terrific to see Legolas again, and, this being set decades before the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he's more acrobatic and deadly with a bow than ever. Also getting copious amounts of screen time is Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly from Lost), the latest hot lady Elf in the tradition of Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett. Tauriel inexplicably gets the hots for one of the Dwarves and defies her Elf King to go off and save him from the Orcs, to Legolas' chagrin. Legolas is quick to spring into action and he doesn't quite understand just why he's running across the forest killing Orcs to save Dwarves, but he'll eventually figure everything out; no need to worry about Legolas.

The Desolation of Smaug starts in the middle of something and ends in the middle of something, all the while in fact being the middle of something. The movie consists of a lot things happening that triggers the next thing that happens, while over yonder, other people are finding out about other things that are going to happen that we already know about, but is news to them. Jackson stages a couple of memorable action sequences, the best of which is the Dwarves escaping from and fighting the Orcs in the river rapids while in barrels that would make for a terrific ride in Universal Studios theme parks. The action occasionally pauses for characters to discuss events and grow increasingly forlorn as the odds of their success weigh against them, but these occur in beautifully realized vistas like Thandruil's Elf City, and the stunning city by the lake ruled over by Stephen Fry. Therein, the Dwarves are aided by a smuggler named Bard (Luke Evans), who holds a few secrets tied to that mountain where the dragon rests.

Everything, of course, builds up to Bilbo penetrating the ancient Dwarf city of gold and coming face to face with the dragon Smaug, who talks! Why Smaug, you're so well-spoken. Where did you study? Who was your professor at university? Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is easily these films' most magnificent CGI creation, and meeting him was worth the wait. (Freeman's Bilbo conversing with Cumberbatch's Smaug is also a fun Sherlock and Watson reunion.) For a dragon who has waded like Scrooge McDuck and dozed in incomprehensible wealth beneath a mountain for centuries, Smaug is shockingly up to date on current events. Smaug knew who Thorin Oakenshield was and what he's been up to and seemed well-prepared to meet this incoming invasion of "filthy Dwarves" trying to take back what Smaug rightfully stole and now owns. Smaug is Game of Thrones' Daenerys Targaryen's dream dragon: not just a mighty, fire-breathing bad ass, but he's rich and a provocative conversationalist. Smaug is also the dragon version of Goldfinger or Goldmember; boy, does he love gold. Smaug literally gets stopped in his tracks and forgets to kill Thorin because he got so distracted by staring at the giant golden statue of a Dwarf King he never knew was there. The Desolation of Smaug abruptly stops as Smaug takes wing to murder all of the new characters we met in this movie with fire and blood. But still, Smaug, you're a fine fellow. It was a pleasure speaking with you. See you next year, perhaps over a spot of tea?