The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) – Directed by Peter Jackson – Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Ken O’Gorman, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, Cate Blanchett, Sylvester McCoy, Orlando Bloom, Manu Bennet, Mikael Persbrandt, Ryan Gage, John Bell, Lawrence Makoare, Stephen Fry, and Stephen Colbert.
Every discussion about Peter Jackson’s THE HOBBIT starts with an acknowledgment that it is not J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT. If you are, like me, okay with this, then the films can be taken as they are, to be enjoyed or disliked as big budget, CGI-driven spectacle. If you are not okay with the Jacksonized Middle Earth, I can understand how these films might drive you nuts.
I’ll repeat my long-standing line one more time: I don’t care a whole lot if the movies represent the source material. I own the source material. I’ve been picturing Middle Earth in my head since I was 5. I’m okay with seeing someone else’s version. Heck, I want to see someone else’s version. Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth is high on emotion, high on spectacle, big on friendship, and peppered with humor, and I’m still enjoying the heck out of it.
I will admit that THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG might be my least favorite of the five movies, but that’s still the equivalent of giving it an “A” instead of an “A+.” SMAUG is a big, dark spectacle that is occasionally undone by the sometimes competing desires to get to the next spectacle and give all of Thorin’s 12 dwarf companions some screen time. The film also further pushes in Thorin’s direction, and SMAUG is, until the titular dragon in revealed beneath a pile of gold coins, really as much Thorin’s movie as it is Bilbo’s.
We start with a trilogy prelude this time out, as Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) enters the Inn of the Prancing Pony in the village of Bree for food and drink. He notices two fellow guests eyeing him suspiciously, but before they can make a move on him, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) joins him, spooking the would-be assassins. Gandalf’s meeting is not a coincidence, of course, and he delivers news to Thorin that a price has been placed on his head and it’s time to stop living in the past and give up the search for his father. It is time for him to take his place on the throne, with the added help of Gandalf the Grey and a particular burglar.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is much more confident this time around, and Freeman does an excellent job showing the internal conflict Bilbo is experiencing without vocalizing it. The One Ring is weighing heavily in his pocket, and he is aware of the changes occurring inside of him every time he uses it as he becomes addicted to the possession of the ring. It’s a curious thing, this relationship with the ring. What Freeman does an fantastic job relaying is that Bilbo’s addiction isn’t to the use of the ring, but rather that simple act of ownership. When the companion’s are in Mirkwood and battling the giant spiders, Bilbo drops the ring. When he spies it on the ground and rushes towards it, a spider crawls up from out of the ground to get in his way. Instead of cowering in fear as he might have pre-ring, Bilbo viciously lashes out at the spider, using Sting to bash and batter the spider to death.
Earlier, he couldn’t even bring himself to tell Gandalf about the ring, an acknowledgment of knowledge also having a possessive quality.
Bilbo gets to play action hero multiple times in SMAUG, rescuing the dwarves from the giant spiders and again from the elves of Mirkwood. While Bilbo is never far from the screen, he does not have a complicated arc this time out – he’s braver, he’s more possessive of the ring, he’s clever enough to solve the riddle of the doorway into the Lonely Mountain, and then the dwarves force him back into the narrative when they send him down to steal the Arkenstone.
The extended sequence with Smaug (built by computers, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), is the biggest geek-out moment of the film. With a look that clearly owes some debt to the Rankin/Bass 1977 movie, Bilbo and Smaug engage in a battle of flattery that leads to a game of hide and seek, which leads to a full out confrontation when Thorin and the dwarves venture into the mountain from the safety of the doorway.
Benedict Cumberbatch and whatever computer program they fed his voice through do a magnificent job with Smaug. The dragon is haughty and clever, patient and explosive, and when he moves you can feel his power thudding through the halls of Erebor. Thorin tricks him into relighting the giant forges, and they end up attempting to kill him by dousing him with molten gold. I could watch Smaug stomp and writhe through Erebor for 3 hours all by itself, but I’m perfectly happy with the hour we got.
It’s Thorin’s square shoulders that bear the bulk of the weight in SMAUG. The opening sequence with him and Gandalf at the Prancing Pony clues us in that this will be as much Thorin’s movie as it is Bilbo’s, and during much of the film the two share the lead narratives. Richard Armitage imbues the would-be king with a heavy heart, fueled by grim determination. He is a proud ruler, unwilling to trade his freedom in Mirkwood for bringing the Elven King Thranduil (Lee Pace) lost treasure.
I wish Jackson and his team of writers had created a stronger relationship between Bilbo and Thorin. There are small acknowledgments here and there – Bilbo orders the dwarves into barrels in Mirkwood, they all refuse, and Thorin steps in to issue the same order as Bilbo, causing the company to now snap into action – but no cohesive arc for the two characters is present. When Thorin orders Bilbo to head down into Erebor to steal the Arkenstone, he remains outside, and his quest for the throne brings out the worst in him. Eventually, after being shamed by Balin (Ken Stott), Thorin does head down into Erebor, though it’s unclear if he’s driven by a desire to help Bilbo or because he doesn’t trust Bilbo to find the Arkenstone. At this point, Bilbo is hightailing it back to the surface, and he and Thorin run into each other on a staircase landing. Thorin’s reaction is focused more on the Arkenstone but when Smaug arrives he doesn’t cower, either. If anything, Smaug’s arrival snaps Thorin back to reality, but I feel like Jackson completely botched Thorin’s surprise appearance inside the mountain.
After Thorin’s plan to kill Smaug fails, the dragon bursts from the mountain to wreak vengeance on Lake-town, and our last shot of the mountain is a distraught Bilbo watching Smaug, wondering just what they’ve done.
It’s a powerful moment, and the audience’s happy frustration at not seeing the town get destroyed by dragon fire (this might be Jackson’s best cliffhanger), speaks to that, but it really should be a moment where Thorin is included, too. With the narrative split as it is between he and Bilbo, and with Thorin having that opening prelude scene, it feels like he needs to be in this scene, too, so we get a full sense of closure.
There are other subplots in SMAUG, that ease the narrative burden away from our two leads. Gandalf runs around doing the Gandalf thing, looking for evil in dark places and getting caught by wizards more powerful than him. He’s got a momentary sidekick in Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) who doesn’t really do a whole lot in this film, but I mention him because Doctor Who.
Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel, a Peter Jackson original, who is a lower class Wood Elf whom both Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Kíli (Aidan Turner) have a romantic interest in. It’s nice to have Legolas back (more or less) but he’s pretty much a jerk through the whole film, which puts a damper on all his fancy arrow shooting. That he gets to meet Glóin, father of his eventual BFF, Gimli, is a nice moment if you know it’s a moment, and completely blah otherwise.
I had a fair amount of concern over the Tauriel character; from the ads and trailers, I had a fear that she wouldn’t be anything more than Legolas 2 (meaning, she’d be good at shooting arrows and she’d want nothing more than to suck face with Legolas). I’m happy to say that all of my worries were for naught – Tauriel is a fantastic addition to the film, and her relationship with Kíli is a low-key highlight amidst all the giant spiders and snarling orcs. The dwarf’s flirtation with the cold elf, and the elf’s expanding warmth for the dwarf is a welcome, smaller moment that the film desperately needs.
We’re introduced to Bard (Luke Evans), a bargeman who also stirs up a bit of discontent in Lake-town (where Stephen Colbert and his family live as spies). He smuggles the dwarves and Bilbo into the city, where it’s established the Mayor (Stephen Fry) and his sniveling sidekick, Alfrid (Ryan Gage) aren’t fans. Bard is a conflicted character, clearly okay with helping the dwarves but not interested in helping them reclaim their mountain kingdom. Because this is Tolkien, it means almost everyone important is the ancestor of someone important, Bard is descended from Girion (also played by Luke Evans), the King of Dale when Smaug thrashed it. It’s in Bard’s house where Tauriel saves Kíli, and in Bard’s house where the last black arrow that can kill Smaug is kept.
On the whole, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is a very good film. There were times when I was a bit overwhelmed by the unrelenting spectacle and wish maybe we had one less set-piece – as much as I love the inclusion of the Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), it does not add much to the film – and a bit more time to hear from the characters. Other than Thorin, Balin, Bofur (James Nesbitt), and Kíli, the rest of the dwarves are little more than background dressing.
There is no denying, however, my appreciation for Jackson’s ability to pull off a CGI spectacle, and no limit to the amount of times I’m willing to come back to his amped-up Middle Earth, or the amount of hours I’m willing to spend being a visitor in it. THE HOBBIT trilogy lacks the emotional impact of the LORD OF THE RINGS films, but the spectacle is still strong and exhilarating.
GUNFIGHTER GOTHIC VOLUME 1: UNDER ZEPPELIN SKIES
It’s 1866. Jill Masters, a merchant’s daughter, and Hanna Pak, her servant, have left Boston for the American West. They’re on the trail of Dotson Winters, Jill’s kidnapped fiancé, a man she doesn’t love but has agreed to marry to save her father’s business.
Dotson finds them first, and reveals that he has faked his kidnapping to intercept the Colony List, a catalog of secret agents living as servants in the most powerful houses throughout the world. Now, Jill wants him to save her father’s business and Hanna wants him to save the lives of those who, like her parents, spent their lives protecting the world in secret. The women chase Dotson across the American West and finally to England, where they have their final showdown in Kraken Moor, and English castle possessed by demons.
Along the way, the two women encounter a time-traveling British spy, kaiju, lizard men, Sun Chasers, Christian vampires, spiteful Confederates, Dixie-loving zombies, nomadic alien robots, werewolves, President Ulysses S. Grant, and the Metronome, beings who live at the end of time, creating powerful weapons for fun.
The greater challenge for Hanna and Jill is reconciling their new arrangement. Hanna wants to be treated as an equal, but Jill is not quite ready to let their old arrangement go. Can the two women work together long enough to accomplish their goals? And what happens to them if they do? In finding themselves, will they lose each other?
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