SPOILERS! Please do not continue beyond this point if you haven’t yet seen the movie! The same also applies if you’ve only read the book because they obviously deviate from the source material!

I’m not kidding…

You’ve been warned…

Okay, here we go!The Desolation of Smaug

The Desolation of Smaug (DoS) is a sequel in a prequel trilogy based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien that is as entertaining and magical as it is frustrating. Before I get into that, let’s recap and summarize. In An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a hobbit, was recruited by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) to join a company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to reclaim their homeland of Erebor from the dragon, Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). After fighting off orcs, goblins, and besting an unfortunate creature named Gollum in a game of riddles, Bilbo found the strength and courage to commit wholeheartedly to helping the dwarves in their quest to take back their home, earning their respect in the process. The Desolation of Smaug, mostly picks up where we left off, with the company making the final leg of their journey towards Erebor. The way is not without peril as they come across giant spiders, the elves of Mirkwood, a new orc pursuer, and the enterprising inhabitants of Lake-town. All of which leads them to Smaug himself. Elsewhere, Gandalf investigates the escape of the Nazgul from their prison and the veiled darkness at Dol Guldur that heralds Sauron’s return.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUGAs sequels go, Desolation of Smaug is an entirely different beast (heh). Unlike another sequel that came out this year, Catching Fire, or its twin in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers, Desolation of Smaug is not a standalone book with its own internal arc under the umbrella of a greater plot. DoS coasts on the plot set up by An Unexpected Journey, giving it more in common with Fellowship of the Ring in that the movie is more about atmosphere and defining the stakes of what lies ahead. The prevailing attitude towards The Hobbit trilogy has been the extension of a 300 page children’s book into three movies that precede a trilogy we’ve already seen, making the events of these new films a forgone conclusion. To flesh out the story, director and co-writer Peter Jackson along with fellow co-writers and producers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens borrowed from J.R.R. Tolkien’s supplementary material in the Appendices and The Silmarillion that delved into the history of Middle Earth and the events that took place before The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. While some cry foul on Jackson and company padding the films to justify the trilogy, Desolation of Smaug actually shows some payoff for the additional backstories and histories. Because DoS has no true narrative structure, Jackson cleverly uses the continuing story to thematically comment on the dangers of greed, power, and obsession that ultimately tie The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings.

Thorin and BilboHow, you might ask, does Jackson accomplish this task? Given that a lot of DoS is about moving the questing party from set piece to set piece, what links many of these pit stops to Erebor are the warnings and threats heaped on Thorin for daring to enter the mountain and take back his birthright. Hampering Thorin at every turn is the stereotype of dwarves as a greedy race concerned only with the pursuit of gold. Thorin’s grandfather, Thror, serves as the primary example since it was the madness induced by the Arkenstone that made him obsessed with acquiring more gold, thus attracting Smaug to Erebor. The Arkenstone functions a bit like the One Ring. It’s sought after for the power it represents, but it quickly becomes an object of obsession leading to one’s downfall. And while the Arkenstone serves the purpose of legitimizing Thorin’s rule, his obsession with obtaining it by any means necessary puts Bilbo, the people of Lake-town, and his own kin at risk. It’s really a testament to Richard Armitage’s abilities as an actor that the complexity of Thorin’s pride and gradual obsession with the quest’s completion work seamlessly in tandem. The closer he gets to Erebor, the more risks he’s willing to take, but you still understand the reasons behind them and sympathize with him. His pride and the survival of his people are at stake, but the closer he comes to succeeding, the more madness creeps into his eyes.Thranduil

The same themes of greed, power, and obsession creep up in just about every aspect of DoS. When the dwarves are captured by the Mirkwood elves, Thranduil (Lee Pace), the king that turned his back on Erebor when Smaug attacked, offers to help Thorin in exchange for the Arkenstone. When Thorin practically spits in his face, calling him out for abandoning his people in their time of need, Thranduil shows him exactly why we wasn’t so eager to go up against another dragon and that he’d warned Thror about the dangers of the Arkenstone but was ignored. His “betrayal” of the dwarves was as much a means of protecting his people as it was a sign that Thror’s obsession ultimately brought about the ruin of his own people and, by extension, the downfall of the surrounding kingdoms. Lake-town is a prime example of the consequences wrought from power and obsession. Without the dwarves to mine Erebor, and the threat of Smaug waking up looming over their heads, the residents of Lake-town live in relative squalor. So when Thorin returns and promises them and their corrupt mayor (Stephen Fry) with untold riches in return for their help, they jump at the chance to reap the rewards regardless of a prophecy spouted by Bard (Luke Evans) that says their town will burn should Thorin return to power. Even Smaug is both a symptom and a transgressor of greed and obsession. He usurps Erebor because of the gold, jewels, and treasure in the mines Thror hoarded and spends his days sleeping amongst the wealth while others suffer outside the mountain. He claims to be threatened by no one, yet he distinctly needs to maintain his dominance over the treasure and the power of the Arkenstone hidden therein. The treasure and the mountain are his but his need to boast and brag not only exposes his one vulnerable spot to Bilbo, but shows the extent to which obsession will drive even a powerful dragon to madness and revenge.

Bilbo and the ringNot even Bilbo Baggins, the bravest little hobbit of them all, is exempt from the lure of power. After the events of An Unexpected Journey, Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is no longer a liability to the quest and proves himself to be more of an asset with each obstacle that comes their way, even if he is helped by a little trinket he found in the goblin tunnels. Freeman infuses Bilbo with the same loveable and endearingly quirky mannerisms, but with the acquisition of the ring, we begin to see a visceral reaction to the source of Sauron’s power the more Bilbo uses it. One scene early on in the film perfectly encapsulates how powerful the ring is and how adept Freeman is at showing its influence on Bilbo. After saving the dwarves from the spiders in Mirkwood, Bilbo loses the ring. Frantically searching for it, he sees it just as another spider approaches. In a moment of uncharacteristic brutality, Bilbo hacks the spider to death, taking the ring and smugly stating, “mine” to the carcass. It’s a chilling moment, made more so when Bilbo slowly snaps out of his fugue state and realizes what he’s done. The horror Freeman manages to convey without speaking a word is phenomenal.Legolas

As much as I’m singling Armitage and Freeman out, the truth is their performances, with a little help from Sir Ian McKellen, truly carry the film. Thorin, Bilbo, and Gandalf are the character’s we’re supposed to form attachments to because it’s their actions that are shaping the course of Middle Earth and leading us towards Lord of the Rings. Not that the rest of the cast slacks off. If anything, the returning cast benefits from the movie’s padding because it gives the audience a chance to get to know the dwarves a little more as we’re introduced to a slew of new characters that includes Thranduil, Bard the Bowman, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), captain of the Mirkwood guard, and the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Thranduil’s son. Of the new cast, Pace stands out the most as Thranduil. He’s enigmatic, yet menacing, displaying an ethereal quality that belies a brutal nature reflected in Legolas as well. I know there were a lot of fears that Legolas was just being shoehorned into the film, but trust me when I say that the addition of Legolas and Tauriel help the story. Seeing a younger Legolas as a ruthless fighter (oddly enough played by an older Orlando Bloom) gives us a chance to see what led to his eventual participation in the Fellowship. He’s rough around the edges now, and there’s a great moment between him and Gloin that Lord of the Rings fans will get a kick out of, but Legolas does possess a good heart, one that will put him at the center of the war for Middle Earth.

TaurielThe creation of Tauriel is also a welcome deviation from Tolkien’s original work not just because it shows a little diversity amongst the male-dominated universe of Middle Earth, but Tauriel is the much-needed dissenting voice amongst the isolationist elves of Mirkwood. She, more than any of her people, understands the encroaching threat of darkness and it isn’t hard to see her influence on Legolas in the future, even if her heart lies with a certain dwarf named Kili (Aidan Turner). Yes, we have a bit of a fledgling romance between an elf and a dwarf, but it really isn’t as bad as you’d think. Part of what makes it work are Evangeline Lilly and Aiden Turner. They play the romance as low-key as possible, showing that Tauriel and Kili as sort of kindred spirits. For all of her badass fighting, Tauriel can be just as insightful and philosophical while Kili displays a knack for spinning funny stories and clever quips, though he’s not without a sentimental side, especially when it comes to his family and his homeland. You buy that these two characters could fall in love, though it’s no less intrusive on the plot than the strange love triangle that wasn’t between Aragorn, Arwen, and Eowyn.

 
So, I think that’s about it. Wait, I think there was something else I was going to talk about in greater detail. Something big and scaly that breathes fire…

 

Smaug

Oh, right, now I remember! OH MY GOD, SMAUG IS THE GREATEST THING EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THINGS! I’m not even kidding. In a movie that clocks in at two hours and forty minutes, Smaug only comes into play as a character in the last half-hour, but he’s worth the wait and the price of admission. This is clearly where all of the money went on the CGI budget because Smaug is the dragon by which all other dragons on film will be judged. Weta has truly created something special in the arrogant, lordly, and vengeful dragon. His movements – heavy, yet strangely graceful – his expressive face, and his booming voice (Benedict Cumberbatch can do no wrong!) all work together to create a believable menace and formidable enemy worthy of the fear that crosses the face of any who utter his name. When Bilbo finally enters the mines in search of the Arkenstone and encounters Smaug, the scene is on par in intensity with the game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum. You believe the danger is real and that Bilbo could easily be killed despite knowing that he’ll survive. That’s just good filmmaking.

On the whole, DoS is a remarkably enjoyable film, but there’s a sense of frustration surrounding it because of how it functions within the Hobbit trilogy. Unlike An Unexpected Journey that had a clear arc surrounding Bilbo’s full commitment to the quest, Desolation of Smaug is pure set-up. There are many exciting sequences – the river barrels, Gandalf at Dol Goldur, and everything with Smaug – but the entire purpose of these sequences is to stack the deck on the plot for the inevitable payoff in There and Back Again, which will be released in December 2014. I’m not kidding when I say that there was an audible groan of frustration from the crowd at my theater when DoS ended. I haven’t seen that kind of reaction since the end of Inception. But I guess the old adage is true: Keep them wanting more. I’m pretty sure we all want more and we’re all coming back.

Oh, and be on the lookout for Peter Jackson’s cameo at the beginning and Stephen Colbert’s cameo in Lake-town.

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