Peter Jackson’s second helping — The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug — written and directed by Peter Jackson with flavoring from J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel is more confident than the first helping of An Unexpected Journey. It is the #1 movie of the opening weekend, scoring 74% at RottenTomatoes.com compared to 65% for the previous serving.
This second film might be considered marginally better than the first as the introductory exposition is out of the way and we can jump right into the mindless senseless violence. But we don’t, we start at Bree and the Prancing Pony Inn and Peter Jackson’s cameo eating a carrot. Here we learn of Gandalf’s original meeting with Thorin Oakenshield and the motivation for Galdalf’s involvement in the quest to the Lonely Mountain. Then the second episode of this why-again-is-this-a-trilogy of a short novel begins with a head shot of Bilbo Baggins who we don’t hear much from for most of the rest of the movie. It’s not as if there isn’t enough time, the movie weighs in at 161 minutes.
Some people might consider it a fatal flaw that a movie titled The Hobbit would not feature the hobbit in a major role, instead it spends more time on Thorin, Legolas (what?) and Tauriel (who?). I would be one of those people. Indeed, the newly introduced character Bard of the Lake seems to get more airtime than Bilbo.
Q: Was Legolas in the book?
The fact that Legolas does not appear in the novel of The Hobbit, nor is he mentioned suggests that his appearance here is a Lord of the Rings tie-in (ka-ching). Admittedly he is the son of Thranduil, Kind of the Woodland Elves, but he played no role in the novel. In the movie, he looks heavier and older than he does in the chronologically later LOTR movies. Indeed, Orlando Bloom the actor is two years older than Lee Pace, who plays his father Thranduil, and he looks it. Here Legolas does little more than play a commando, and his action scenes feature the same kind of skateboard action we saw in LOTR, and then some. In the river barrel riding scenes, he hops around like a Donkey Kong game. I wasn’t sure if this was the clever escape from the Kingdom of the Woodelves, or a ride at Disneyworld.
Q: Was Tauriel in the book?
Philippa Boyens, one of the screenwriters explains that the character of Tauriel is an original creation written for the film: “She’s our redhead. We created her for that reason. To bring that energy into the film, that feminine energy. We believe it’s completely within the spirit of Tolkien.”
There is an Elvish word that describes this kind of explanation: guano.
Nevertheless, Evangeline Lilly, known for her role in the TV show Lost, began her career at the Ford modeling agency and she’s pleasing to the eye. Tauriel joining Legolas as partner-in-arms was more photogenic than Legolas and Gimli. Her performance is charismatic and compelling. The love triangle between her, Legolas and the dwarf Kili is amusing, if inauthentic to the novel. I’m rooting for the dwarf.
Evangeline Lilly says of her role
“She’s a Sylvan [woodland or Green] Elf, which means she’s of a much lower order than the elves we all became acquainted with in The Lord of the Rings. She doesn’t hold the same kind of status that Arwen or Galadriel or Elrond or Legolas do — she’s much more lowly. She sort of goes against the social order of the elves a little bit.”
She’s right about that: Arwen and her grandmother Galdriel are Noldor (Deep) Elves, and Legolas was a Sindar (Grey) Elf. Elrond was more lofty still, called half-elven; he is of the lineage of the three great elven houses — Noldor, Vanyar, and Sindar — but also of the line of Men (Edain) and of the line of the semi-angelic Maia, like Gandalf. Tauriel is a Sylvan or Green Elf which, as Beorn said, are “less wise” elves.
If the previous movie was irritating, this one was annoying. While the pacing was better, it was even less faithful to Tolkien’s source material. Purists will be displeased by this tendency especially the focus on incessant battles, some quite gruesome — four beheadings, count ’em four. Action figure heroines do not play a major role in Tolkien’s books, with the possible exception of Eowin, and I suspect he is spinning in the grave at increased RPMs. It is this divergence from the genius of Tolkien’s writing that blemishes these Hobbit movies. Tolkien was one of the greatest authors of the 20th century (with 150 million copies sold, perhaps the greatest author) and is better at putting together a story and the sub-creation of a legendarium than Jackson. When Jackson creates out of whole cloth in substitution of Tolkien’s story, he goes astray.
However, I suspect general audiences will find this installment more entertaining for several reasons, not the least of which was that the disappointment in the first Hobbit movie lowered expectations. This film was certainly more fun.
A few nice touches for the Tolkien nerds: when Gandalf enters Dol Goldur, the abode of the Necromancer — whose identity we don’t yet know only that he’s a dark sorcerer — we hear the intonation of the poem of the One Ring in the Black Speech of the orcs.
Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum ishi krimpatul.
Which in English is:
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
As the best dragon you’ve seen and heard since Sean Connery’s Draco in DragonHeart, Benedict Cumbertatch‘s voice as Smaug is both beautifully sonorous and malevolent at the same time. We love him as Sherlock; we fear him as Khan in Star Trek. The electronic enhancements to his voice were distracting and while it was imposing and intimidating, I felt that Jackson missed the nuance of a venal, sly Smaug toying with his prey as a cat would with a mouse. The physicality and sinuousness of the firedrake was incredible, with a narrow face, pointed feline-reptilian ears and a lean body. I was disappointed that they went for “iron armor” for the dragon, rather than the book’s original jeweled armor.
Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown was a delight, vain glorious and petty. I’m looking forward to seeing him in the last installment.
Strains of music: occasionally when Thorin appears we here strains of the soulful music from the first movie “Far under the misty mountains cold” and when Tauriel talks about the starlight of the Eldar, you hear strains of the beautiful Academy Award winning song by Annie Lennox “Farthest Shore” from the end of Return of the King. But that song was about the sea, not starlight. And all elves are intoxicated by the sound of the sea.
The Not So Good:
Learning that there is a Black Speech contract out on Thorin’s head was ridiculous. While in the book you don’t have endless skirmishes with orcs after the warg scene at the end of the previous film, the goblins are still (unsuccessfully) hunting the company of the dwarves — but for a different motivation: they killed the Great Goblin in the Misty Mountains. As I recounted in my review of the previous movie, the entire subplot of the chase by the orcs is an invention of Jackson’s, and not in the book. Hence the subplot of Gandalf going alone to Dol Guldur to battle is an erroneous and unnecessary distraction to the film, though it looked good. But Jackson likes to have competing subplots as he moves toward his climax. This one just doesn’t work.
The unnecessarily abrupt cliff hanger ending left the audience in the theater audibly exclaiming “What?” This keeps the movie from being a standalone story. Even the first film had a climactic, if artificial, climax. This left filmgoers unsatisfied, even after a rousing, though overlong action scene with the dragon. Even the penultimate film in Jackson’s LOTR series The Two Towers had a more satisfying ending.
The end title song by Ed Sheeran seems out of place, as does most of the music in the movie. Rather than enhancing the film organically it comes up like an ill wind.
You’ll like it if: non-stop action is your vision of Middle-earth, you require a certain quota of slain albino orcs to make your movie experience complete.
You won’t like it if: faithfulness to Tolkien’s original story is important to you, you expect to see the visual grandeur in the original novel’s description.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture