Part Two of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit opens today. This episode is called The Desolation of Smaug, and it can be dealt with briefly: It’s a much more exciting couple of hours than last year’s An Unexpected Journey, good as that film was.
No doubt this is because the first film, like the first film in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, was concerned in a rather deliberate way with delivering backstory and carefully setting up the reasons for the adventure to come. There was a lot of feasting and singing and portentous flashbacks and solemn declarations, and it seemed to take a while to get to the chases and battles.
The Desolation starts with a quick recap of Part One and ends with an infuriating—and highly effective—cliffhanger, and in between it’s very nearly non-stop action. Our hero, as before, is the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who along with his full-sized pal, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), is accompanying a band of Dwarves on a quest across Tolkien’s mythic Middle Earth to recover a treasure in Dwarf-forged gold from inside a mountain.
The difficulty with getting this ancestral treasure back is that it’s guarded by Smaug, a gargantuan fire-breathing dragon who exhibits unmistakable hoarding tendencies. Bilbo is the expedition’s designated “burglar,” tasked with sneaking into Smaug’s lair and finding a McGuffin called “The Arkenstone,” a magical rock that will somehow give the Dwarves clear title to the treasure.
I think. As is so often the case for me with high fantasy stories, I got a little lost in the exposition, and was a bit unclear on the Arkenstone’s value. But it doesn’t matter much more than “the microfilm” or whatever does in a Hitchcock thriller; I just accepted that it was important that Bilbo find the thing, and that when it came to giving it up, Smaug would be a dangerously reluctant dragon.
Anyway, as no particular Tolkien buff, I can still say that I found The Hobbit: TDOS a rollicking time. It’s one showcase scene after another. We follow the lads as they encounter a giant bear who shape-shifts at times into a giant man (or maybe it’s the other way around), or escape a nest of giant spiders, or hurtle down white water rapids in empty wine casks chased by hideous Orcs—that last sequence looks ready-made for a theme park somewhere. There’s an escape from the palaces of the Elves, and a yearning between one of the Dwarves and a quite adorable She-Elf (Evangeline Lilly). And all this comes before Bilbo ever even creeps into Smaug’s lair.
When he does, Jackson gives us the most spectacular movie dragon since, at least, the terrifying monster in the splendid 1982 fantasy Dragonslayer. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is a more or less traditional dragon in design, but Jackson stages an entrance for him, gradually rising from under his drifts of gold, that is nearly as good as the original King Kong’s.
A part of what makes Smaug’s introduction so hair-raising is the slyly underscaled comic takes of Martin Freeman. As Bilbo realizes the colossal monster is aware of him and he’s been caught with his hand in the ultimate cookie jar, he reacts with bemused, almost mild irritation, like somebody who’s failed to avoid a boring colleague or a tiresome neighbor.
A couple of other notes for the weekend: Those here in the Valley who might want to do the young dinosaur buffs of their acquaintance a solid might consider taking them to the Walking With Dinosaurs 3-D event tomorrow afternoon at Arizona Museum of Natural History.
Also, somebody forwarded me this year’s necrology from Turner Classic Movies. You can check it out here, it seems comprehensive compared to the one on the Oscars.