The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 41 min.

Our Advisories: Violence 4; Language -1; Sex/Nudity –1.

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

O let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
but establish the righteous,
you who test the minds and hearts,
O righteous God.

Psalm 7.9

 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John 1.5

The Hobbit band of characters. Film by MGM and New Line Cinema.

The Hobbit band of characters. Film by MGM and New Line Cinema.

Action loving Tolkien fans will be both pleased and (for purists) displeased by this second part of Peter Jackson’s bloated version of the novel that prepares the way for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The pleasure will be in that there is no long, rambling prelude to the action, as in the first film that could have been titled Our Dinner at Bilbo’s. The displeasure might arise from the director’s invention of a new character, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a female elf warrior, no doubt to add diversity to the otherwise all male cast. Oh yes, also because Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who never made an appearance in the novel, plays a very important role in this version. “Blame” for this, if this is the right word, must be shared also with Jackson’s other co-writers, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro.

Beginning after Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the 13 rowdy dwarves have gone forth from their outlandish dinner in the Shire, Part Two deals with their dangerous mission to find the Arkenstone hidden within the Lonely Mountain in the underground kingdom of Erebor where the monster dragon Smaug now holds sway. Bilbo has climbed somewhat in the esteem of dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) thanks to his resourcefulness.

Chased by a large band of Orcs, the band follows Gandalf’s advice to find safety in the large house of the skin-changer, Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), who at first in the forest as a bear attacks them, but then when they gain entrance to his house, changes into a giant who not only shelters them, but lends them his horses so they can outrun the pursuing Orcs. Gandalf soon leaves the group to pursue an errand the nature of which he keeps to himself, thus leaving the others feeling very vulnerable as they seek a shortcut to the Lonely Mountain through dark Mirkwood Forest.

They are attacked and captured by giant spiders, and almost as soon as they escape that danger (thanks to the One Ring that Bilbo has kept hidden, even from Gandalf), they are captured by the Wood-elves and locked into cells. Tauriel becomes interested in the tallest of the dwarves Kili (Aidan Turner), and takes up their cause with the isolationist Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace’s Thrandui) and Legolas. The latter two have learned from a captured Orc that “the One” has returned and intends to conquer all of Middle Earth. Feeling superior to everyone, the Elvenking believes that by staying in and sealing off their forest to outsiders they will be safe from the threat of evil. Tauriel asks Legolas, “When did we allow evil to become stronger than us?” Legolas replies, “It is not our fight…” “It IS our fight!” she retorts. And when Bilbo again uses the One Ring to cloak himself in invisibility so that he can steal the dungeon keys and affect their escape, she takes off after them as they plunge down a raging river.

This roller coaster ride of the dwarves and Bilbo in sawed in half barrels is one of the most thrilling escape sequences ever filmed, the barrels and their passengers plummeting over a waterfall and down the raging rapids of the river. The Orcs are chasing them along either shore, but just as one of them is about to kill a barrel occupant, Tauriel shoots an arrow into the villain. Legolas also joins in the chase, nimbly jumping on and springing from barrel to barrel (or head) as he dispatches an Orc, sometimes with his sword, other times, like Tauriel, with his bow and arrow.

There is of course much more to come, including an interesting new character, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), a bargeman who smuggles the band into Lake-town, a human settlement close by the Lonely Mountain. And there is the dramatic discovery by Bilbo of the hidden door into the mountain and his solo descent into the Mountain where he comes upon the ancient dwarves’ treasure of gold coins and vessels and jewels that makes Scrooge McDuck’s legendary treasure trove look like piggy band contents in comparison. And there is the sleeping dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), a magnificent monster with bat wings and a long neck and head from which he directs fire at his enemies. When the dwarves finally decide to enter the tunnel themselves to join Bilbo, they work together to defeat the monster stalking Bilbo, but their ingenious plan does not work, the dragon flying from its trap to wreak destruction, and then—well, those who have not read the novel will have to wait till next year to discover the resolution of the cliff hanging climax.

The film is filled with spectacular scenes of beauty—the elven city in Mirkwood; Bilbo in the forest climbing a high tree for obtaining a fix on their location and emerging into the forest canopy of bright colored autumn leaves and blue butterflies, and many, many great special effects-aided action sequences. However the latter consisted of, for me, too many bloody battles that seemed repetitious.

The violence, consisting of heads and arms of Orcs flying every which way as Legolas and Tauriel wield their swords against the creatures. The audience laughed and cheered at the mayhem, something which always gives me a chill, this ready acceptance of violence excused by the fact that the slain are, after all, not human. (But isn’t this the way advocates of violence always justify slaughter—denying the humanity of the foe by calling them gooks, slant eyes, Huns, rag heads, and so on?) Many reviewers of the earlier trilogy noted Peter Jackson’s emphasis upon the violence in Tolkien. Whereas Tolkien sometimes provided brief descriptions of a battle, Jackson added detail after detail, to the delight of action fans. In reality Tolkien was probably more like the peace loving hobbits than the might human and elven warriors.

Jackson does depict the insidious effect of the One Ring, shown so powerfully in The Lord of the Rings:  Bilbo takes it out on occasion, using it to effect their rescue two times, but knowing that his ownership of it is not right, thus keeping it a secret. At one moment he starts to tell his mentor Gandalf about the Ring, saying that he found something. When the wizard asks him “What?” he hesitates, and lamely answers, “Courage.”

Another factor I appreciated is the theme of light against darkness, a topic that runs throughout the Gospel of John.  There is a scene in which Gandalf is using his light-emitting staff to ward off an attack, and his foe declares that darkness will triumph over the light. Gandalf the Grey, who in the Lord of the Rings will be transformed into Gandalf the White, refuses to accept this. Even when he is imprisoned or the fortunes of his friends are at their lowest, he does not give up the struggle against evil. The desolation in the film’s title refers to the havoc that evil brings upon the countryside, in this case wrought by the fiery breath of the vicious Smaug, but Gandalf and Bilbo struggle to bring back the beauty that the desolated land has lost.

This desolation of the land, also emphasized in The Two Towers, is said by Tolkien scholars to reflect the author’s dismay of the devastation of so many childhood haunts, their beauty destroyed by mines and factories of the spreading industrialization of England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some shrugged and called it “the price of progress,” but Tolkien thought that such progress demanded too high a price.

The isolationist views of the elf leaders also arose from Tolkien’s experience of the English and American isolationism that resulted from their desire never again to become sucked into a disastrous war on the European continent. Although he wrote the book in the early 30s before Hitler’s soldiers reoccupied the industrialized Ruhr Valley in violation of the Treat of Versailles, the isolationism that prevented England and its allies from stopping the dictator while they still could, was widespread. Thus Tauriel concern expressed in her question, “When did we allow evil to become stronger than us?” was very timely.

There is plenty to criticize in the first two Hobbit films, but there is so much to explore and admire, think about, and at times just to sit back and go along for the ride. It may be a bumpy ride, but it is always a thrilling one.

The full review with discussion questions will be included in the January 2014 issue of Visual Parables, scheduled for posting early that month. To subscribe to the publication go to the Store. A year’s subscription will gain you access not just to this issue (which has far more features in it than just film reviews and guides), but also to issues as far back as Summer 2006. 

 

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