In comparison to casual fans of The Hobbit films, I suspect I’m in the minority that enjoys reflective and instructive interludes between battles, chases, and mind-numbing mayhem. More than a few national reviews of The Desolation of Smaug have complimented Part 2 for being, as Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal says, “far more focused and much more exciting than the last one”. Today, action films must transcend mere adventure and suspense, requiring “enlargement” with directorial steroids and high-octane pyrotechnics.
There is something in this film to attract the eyes and ears, to speed up the heart, and to tease the mind, but there is little that uplifts or inspires. I’m sorry to say this as my review of Part 1 included a “qualified but confident yes” to the question of whether that film exhibited something of Tolkien’s spirit and beliefs.
As Part 2 features a dragon, Smaug, here is some “drakology” according to Tolkien. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Smaug is of the order Uruloki (Elvish for fire serpent). To the best of my knowledge, Tolkien never explains exactly who or what these sentient, subtle, and terrible creatures are, but they served Morgoth, the fallen Vala, as did Sauron, in the First Age. Smaug may be a handful, but he pales in comparison to his forbears: Glaurung, the father of dragons, and Ancalagon the Black, whose desolation extended to a broad swath of First Age Middle Earth.
The Bree of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings films, in spite of being invaded by Black Riders, was a cheerier looking place than the Bree that Jackson depicts in this film. Lake Town is more of the same. Both towns seemed to be modeled on eighteenth-century London slums. In contrast to these gritty and grimy towns, Jackson gives us spectacular vistas: mountains, valleys, meadows, and a majestic view from the treetops.
I like how Jackson depicts Smaug’s lair: immense, cold, clinking and clanking, lifeless treasure heaped like sand dunes, with the cold-blooded serpent reclining in its midst. Then, Jackson goes an inspired step further by contrasting the smallness, even insignificance, of Bilbo’s Ring with the vastness of Smaug’s treasure, while suggesting that both are one and the same in their eventual mastery over their keepers.
When Jackson diverges from Tolkien’s story, he sometimes utilizes material from other stories in Tolkien’s canon. In Thranduil, the king of the Wood-elves, who says, “I faced the great serpents of the north”, we are reminded of the First Age of Middle Earth when the elf-lord Feanor and his brothers battled Morgoth and his armies. When Thranduil says, “Here in this kingdom we will endure”, and insists that the outside world is of no concern, we are reminded of King Thingol and the Girdle of Melian around the elf kingdom of Doriath, or Turgon and hidden Gondolin, both detailed in The Silmarillion. Even the portrayal of Thranduil: cold, haughty, and proud, is reminiscent of those elves that abandoned the Blessed Realm to pursue Morgoth to Middle Earth.
As for Jackson’s innovations, the relentless orcs in this film are clearly under the direction of the Necromancer, rather than being semi-independent marauders. Smaug’s eye bears an eerie resemblance to Sauron’s eye, which bears a rohrschach-ian relationship to the humanoid Sauron before he fell and lost his Ring. Jackson imagines Gandalf’s exploration of a vast, haunted Dol Guldur and subsequent confrontation with the Necromancer. A female elf-warrior, who bonds with one of the dwarves, is introduced, and she plays a prominent role, mostly as a purveyor of the aforementioned mayhem.
There were things in this film that were like other things, big and small things, subtle and obvious things. Gandalf is imprisoned, as he was in The Lord of The Rings; athelas is used to heal, as it was by Aragorn; a Wormtongue-like character inhabits Lake Town.
I’ve saved my most critical observation for last. Too many scenes were not just action-packed, they were incredulously frantic, campy, absurd—like a Bugs Bunny or Roadrunner cartoon, and they went on and on.
Years ago, we made it an annual event to attend a screening of The Lord of The Rings films, introduced to the audience by the knowledgeable and entertaining Tolkien biographer, Joseph Pearce. Though fewer of that group of family and friends were able to attend The Desolation of Smaug, it was wonderful to reprise that special experience last weekend. So, I was uplifted and inspired after all, just not by this film.