BY AMBER KELLY-ANDERSON
Creating a true narrative trilogy is tricky business, even for Hobbits. The first film introduces the viewer to the marvelous world and ignites the action; the third is the climax and resolution. That means that the middle film, at least in terms of storytelling, is all rising action. While the first Lord of the Rings trilogy middle child film, The Two Towers, had the benefit of an epic battle to give it a climax, the midsection of The Hobbit must rely on other trappings to make it a fulfilling film. Luckily, Peter Jackson is a wizard at the bits and bobs of movie making.
The Desolation of Smaug more or less picks up where An Unexpected Journey left off: The band of dwarves, Gandalf (Ian McKellen–who is always divine), and reluctant burglar Bilbo (Martin Freeman) are being pursued by barbarous orcs while on their mission to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from that pesky dragon of the title. As they trudge ever onward (for what is a Hobbit film without wide shots of people walking against breathtaking New Zealand scenery?), the band encounters ravenous spiders, a bear who is more than he seems, and woodland elves who aren’t as kind as those they met in the previous movie.
During the scenes with the elves Jackson strays furthest from his source material, bringing fan favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom) out to play with arrows blazing. Jackson even has the gusto to create a character–Mirkwood guard Tauriel (Evengeline Lilly)–to serve as both contrast and potential love interest for Legolas. The addition actually adds to the story as Jackson has elected to tell it.
Unlike An Unexpected Journey, this film has a grim sense of foreboding. Many of the characters, including Gandalf, Tauriel and Legolas’s icy-veined father, King Thranduil (Lee Pace), recognize the gather darkness. The journey is no longer just a Hobbit’s holiday, but a precursor to the onset of evil that will herald Sauron. And what of the dark lord? He is no mere rumour just as those are no mere orcs tracking the dwarves. For book fans who might have wondered where Gandalf dashes off to while the dwarves and Bilbo wander through Mirkwood, wonder no more.
The film’s piece de resistance, however, is Smaug himself (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Just as with Andy Serkis’s embodiment of Gollum, Smaug is no mere CGI monster. Serpentine and glistening with evil amongst the mountains of treasure, his movements, voice and presence are grandiose and menacing. When he breathes fire, it is so intense that his scales glow like hot coals before unleashing his merciless blasts of flame. His exchange with Bilbo is snappy, yet sinister, a fitting climax for the film even without a battle. It is a bridge of substance, not just necessity.