THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG: Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Aiden Turner, and Evangeline Liddy. Directed by Peter Jackson. Rated M (Fantasy violence). 161 min.
This is the second part of a trilogy of films, based on J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 novel, "The Hobbit". The series began within "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" in 2012, and will end with "The Hobbit: There and Back Again" in 2014.
The movie continues the epic journey of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he joins the Wizard, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on a quest to regain the lost kingdom of Erebor. The kingdom is held by Smaug, the last great dragon of Middle Earth.
Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a huge dragon who guards the treasures of Erebor deep beneath Lonely Mountain. The term "desolation" in the movie's title is not meant to indicate that Smaug is sad in any way. Rather, he is a dragon that has desolated everything around him, ravaging everything to protect his guardianship.
The previous film in the series, "An Unexpected Journey", was too long in establishing its narrative; it moved erratically to assert the validity of the quest to regain Erebor; and it used photographic realism to give its three-dimensional look an artificial sharpness. In this movie, all those problems are fixed.
After a short prequel, the film moves almost immediately into fast-paced action sequences, that include the attack on Bilbo and his group by an army of huge spiders. The movie moves from one fantastic sequence to another, culminating in Bilbo's confrontation with Smaug. The photographic process behind this movie has also eliminated its artificial sharpness. Good and Evil are still being contrasted, as they are so effectively in "The Lord of the Rings", and the significance of the Ring begins to emerge. But the vital and heroic themes of the Ring series are almost totally absorbed by thrilling action sequences.
This movie is high-pursuit fantastic action, and the entertainment appeal of that is helped enormously by the involvement of Guillermo del Toro who collaborates frequently with Peter Jackson, and who helped write the screenplay for the film. Some of the special sequences illustrate highly imaginative effects. They include the spiders (which are genuinely scary) ensnaring the group in their gossamer webs, a white-river rafting sequence with the dwarves in barrels being attacked by invading Orcs, and the final show-down of Bilbo and Smaug, which though a little long, establishes a nail-biting finale to the film.
The movie is full of original characters drawn from Tolkien's book, but new characters emerge. One is Tauriel (Evangeline Liddy), the tough female elf-warrior protected by Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the Elven Prince of Mirkwood. She establishes a conflicted love interest with Kili (Aiden Turner), the most handsome of the dwarves. It is a cross-species love affair, and a theme is established which no doubt will be played out in the third and final movie in the series.
As with other movies in the Hobbit and Ring series, the set designs are amazingly detailed. Two unforgettable sequences are the silhouette of Bilbo on top of cascading piles of gold underneath Lonely Mountain, and Smaug tossing the molten fire from his wings as he flies off to reek revenge against those daring to disturb him. And New Zealand continues to provide the most glorious of scenic back-drops for the dwarves' noble quest.
This is a high action-packed, energetic, imaginative adventure-tale, that has many dark and gloomy moments. However, it has tremendous momentum, is gorgeous to watch, communicates Tolkien's mystery inventively, and starts to anticipate seriously "The Lord of The Rings".
This movie contains far more action than heroism, and the moral superiority of Good over Evil nearly always takes a back seat to trying to maintain a furious action pace. The movie, however, holds one's imagination creatively throughout all of its duration.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for film and Broadcasting.
Out December 26th., 2013