‘The Desolation of Smaug’ brings more smolder to Tolkien

The second installment of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy brings more smoke to Smaug and tries to make a children’s novel smolder. “The Desolation of Smaug” answers two questions: 1) What does Smaug look like? and 2) Why does Jackson need three movies to tell this tale?

You might already know what Smaug looks like if you’ve been paying attention. As a bit of good PR, Air New Zealand offers us all the opportunity to ride on Smaug although not in the “How to Train Your Dragon” way. More like, as a passenger in a commercial airlines that has a cool commercial slapped on to its side.  J.R.R. Tolkien himself wasn’t a Kiwi and didn’t travel to New Zealand to my knowledge. He was born in South Africa (Bloemfontein), grew up in Birmingham (England) and eventually, after serving in World War I, he taught at Oxford as a professor of English Language and Literature.

Aided by Benedict Cumberbatch’s smooth though oily intonations, Smaug is simply marvelous. He slithers and threatens, he bellows and insinuates. He is an admirable achievement in CGI although we’re never quite sure why his hot breath and fire don’t melt the gold that surrounds him.

If you missed the first installment, Peter Jackson doesn’t provide a quick synopsis to bring you up to speed. Jackson doesn’t waste time here. So if you missed “An Unexpected Journey,” here’s a brief outline. We know that Bilbo Baggins survives this journey because the movie begins with Bilbo Martin Freeman) writing down the story. Sixty years have passed and it’s Bilbo’s 111th birthday. When he was 50, Gandalf tricked Bilbo into entertaining dwarves led by Thorin.

Thorin (Richard Armitage) is the grandson of the dwarf king Thror (Jeffrey Thomas). Thror and his people were driven from their beautiful city under the Lonely Mountain by a dragon called Smaug. Thorin seeks to reclaim the city and its gold. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) convinces them to recruit Bilbo as a burglar. The dwarves, the wizard and Bilbo have various adventures which include escaping from three trolls, falling into a treasure cave their they all gain elfin swords. They meet the doddering Radagast the Brown who reveals dark magic is at work. Gandalf talks with the White Council which includes Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) about the black magic and Thorin’s venture. The White Council opposed Thorin’s quest, but the dwarves have gone on ahead without Gandalf.

In the Misty Mountains, the group are captured by Goblins and during the escape, Bilbo meets Gollum (Andy Serkis) and finds the precious ring. This crew can’t catch a break and are soon pursued by Orcs, one of whom has a grudge against Thorin. Luckily for them, eagles come and save them from the Orcs.

In “The Desolation of Smaug,” we begin with a flashback to the beginning of the quest. Gandalf meets Thorin in a human eatery, something between a pub and a perfect place for a brawl i the town of Bree. Gandalf convinces Thorin to find the Arkenstone, a special gem that is white and magically glowing and confers rulership to the owner. Then we jump forward in time to a year later as the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf are being pursued by orcs. Instead of eagles, they meet with a shape-shifter, Beorn. Beorn loans the guys his horses so they can outrun the Orcs.

At the ominous forest of Mirkwood, Gandalf bails on the company. He urgently needs to go somewhere but urges the company onward, telling him to wait before entering the Lonely Mountain. There’s something definitely wrong in Mirkwood and if you have arachnophobia, this movie might not be for you. After battling the giant spiders, the dwarves are first saved and then imprisoned by the Wood elves which include Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and a feisty ginger female elf, Tauriel.

Using the ring, Bilbo helps the dwarves escape but not before one of them, Kili (Aidan Turner) becomes interested in Tauriel. Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is a lowly elf, but beloved by Legolas, son of the Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace). Legolas and Tauriel pursue the escapees, but the dwarves will get to the Lonely Mountain and they will meet Smaug.

Tauriel didn’t exist in the original novel. As a girl, I didn’t notice the definite lack of female characters or wonder just how the Orcs and Goblins made little ones. As a woman, I grew weary of a tale without girls or women. Tauriel was added in order to give women someone to relate to and she is the chief of the guards for the Elf king Thranduil. This bit of revisionist history contradicts the general tone of “The Hobbit” as well as the ” Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Legolas doesn’t appear in the novel, but imagine what kind of different fan base the movie will attract with Bloom having a significant role in it? One can’t help staring at Legolas and Thranduil and that’s not because I wish Bloom would return to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise or dream of Pace in a movie franchise of “Pushing Daisies.”  Father and son are bottle blonds with their dark eyelashes and eyebrows, your mind can’t help thinking there is something wrong. It worked for Madonna because she wasn’t going for the natural look. I’m not sure it works here. There is something wrong with a father and son who depend upon bleach to keep their locks platinum blond when they are supposed to be in tune with nature and living in a time where the technology of the day has them fighting with swords, arrows and spears. Perhaps this hair is more elf magic.

Peter Jackson’s screenplay (written with his wife Fran Walsh and additional help from Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro) the Orcs are the Stormtroopers of Middle Earth. Legolas and Tauriel can easily defeat a band of Orcs. In the whole admittedly amusing and slightly comical flight, only one dwarf gets injured. This is adventure and danger in the cartoony fashion we’ve seen in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. Humor, as I recall, was generally lacking in LOTR.

Jackson needed not one, but two additional films to tell the story of “The Hobbit” because he is not only including some backstory and allusions that help lead up to LOTR, but he’s adding other characters and romantic tension. From “The Desolation of Smaug,” he seems to be gearing up toward a father and son showdown between Legolas and Thranduil. Whether or not this will be a father-and-son comparison as satisfying as Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” remains to be seen.

We’ll have to wait until the final episode of this series, to decide on that.

Besides the smoke and fire of Smaug, Jackson has added an emotional solder in the form of a love triangle that crosses species. An elfen maid, Tauriel,  is beloved by an elfen prince, Legolas,  but also a dwarf, Kili.

Yet by expanding “The Hobbit” and taking on themes of fathers and sons, revenge and filiopiety, love and jealousy, Jackson and his team are drifting away from what made “The Hobbit” a children’s read and dragging it into the epic high fantasy genre of LOTR. One wonders what would have happened if the the producers had been successful in convincing Viggo Mortensen to reprise his role of Aragorn.

“The Desolation of Smaug” by itself is an okay movie, one that I’d see just for the dragon. Compared to “An Unexpected Journey,” it is better paced and more consistent in tone. Seen together, you might be troubled by the transition. If you haven’t seen “An Unexpected Journey,” you might find “The Desolation of Smaug” a bit off-putting because you need to know the backstory to make sense of it.

Jackson’s “The Hobbit” film series is not for small children and if your kids are old enough to handle the ickiness of the bad guys being beheaded, they may be at that age when gentle feelings of tenderness have become icky.

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