Tolkien’s parenthetical “when achieved” is the kicker of that statement, the acknowledgement of how challenging and rare successful fantasy really is. You know it when you see it. This reviewer did not find that quality in “An Unexpected Journey“, the first entry of Peter Jackson’s huge trilogy based on Tolkien’s slim one-volume epic “The Hobbit,” but it is there in spades in part 2, “The Desolation of Smaug.”
This middle chapter lasts a half-hour too long, and the final third splits the story up into three parts, weakening the narrative thrust that had been building, but no matter: By the time we get to Bilbo Baggins’ confrontation with the dragon Smaug (voiced with delicious sneering evil by Benedict Cumberbatch), the real work has been done. The thematic elements are in right position, the emotional tension is highly strung, and the action takes place in a wave like the fire erupting from the dragon’s mouth, overtaking all in its path.
But for a flashback which features Gandalf (played by Ian McKellen) and the exiled dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) joining forces in a dark and beer-soaked pub straight out of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”, “The Desolation of Smaug” picks up where the previous chapter left off, with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the posse of rowdy dwarves deep into their adventure to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and the dwarves’ lost kingdom.
Bilbo, dragged unwillingly from his comfortable hole-in-the-ground in the Shire in the first movie, is now resigned to his fate, and proves resourcefulness and pluck in one harrowing situation after another. He’s also got that mystical golden ring he found in the goblin tunnel—the one that appears to make him invisible, the one that nobody else knows about, yet. It will come in handy. Gandalf tries to keep the gang together, but separates himself on his own solitary spell-breaking mission (which Tolkien’s novel suggests is undertaken by Gandalf to force Bilbo to earn the trust of the dwarves on his own).
Along the way, the heroes find shelter in the home of a shape-shifting Giant-slash-Bear, and are pursued by a galloping army of Orcs. To save time, they cut through the Mirkwood Forest and skip into a horrifying herd of huge attacking spiders, in a sequence doomed to give me nightmares for months. (I have hardly recovered from reading that part in the book when I was 10 years old.) Rescued and then imprisoned by the isolationist-minded elves, the dwarves and Bilbo figure out a way to escape in a load of barrels down a river, being attacked from the banks by orcs and elves alike.
Some old friends show up: cool-eyed Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett). There’s a new elf to be introduced, named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who is drawn to one of the dwarves; the romantic triangle she grows has nothing to do with anything, but it is still nice to see Tauriel act as a deus ex machina on a couple of occasions. Stephen Fry has a great guest starring as the Master of Lake-Town, a despicable and gout-ridden person lording it over his menacing constituents from on high; it’s a Dickensian piece of scene-devouring.
Jackson and his team have a lot of fun creating these three-dimensional worlds, overwhelming us with different moods, energies, and personalities. Some of the images are breathtaking: the Long Lake swathed in mist with mysterious structures emerging; the misty dark wood full of shadowy waiting creatures; the sophisticated vertical fortress of the elves, soothing and yet rigid, also, suggesting the elves’ unwillingness to get involved in the bigger dark forces overtaking the outside world.
The ultimate confrontation with the dragon, when it arrives, is worth the wait (even though it would have been nice if the wait hadn’t been quite so long). The dragon’s lair is beautifully pictured, an undulating and ever-changing landscape of coins and gold. There are tons of great moments: a huge tapestry falling from the wall in a rippling wave; gigantic collapsing columns; tiny walkways over the abyss; the dwarves’ visible awe at their ancestors’ ingenuity and power. Throughout, you get the sense that you really are in a lost and glorious world.
And still, for all its scope, there’s also a sort of homespun absurdness in Tolkien’s book—a “Tut tut, isn’t everything just a bit much?” energy, stereotypically British, which has sometimes been lost in the other movies, overwhelmed as they are by portent and meaning. It’s not lost this time. That barrel scene, for example, goes on for what feels like forever, and every second is justified. It has its own momentum, chaotic and jubilant, reaching an almost screwball climax, as events catapult out of control and nobody is sure which end is up, least of all the dwarves. Smaug is a scary beast, but you still laugh at the part of Bilbo wincing at the breath coming out from the dragon’s mouth. (Now that’s the Bilbo I recognize from the book.)
There’s a moment before the spider attack that perfectly aligns us with the overall intent of Tolkien’s fiction. Bilbo is asked to climb one of the trees to peek out of the top of the forest and see how much further they need to go. When he pushes his head through the top, all he can see is a carpet of autumn leaves spreading almost as far as the eye can see, with blue butterflies flitting about along the leaf-tips. The sun shines brightly, and for a moment Bilbo is awestruck.
We know that what happens next is bound to be grisly and terrible. But beauty is there to be appreciated, and The Hobbits, with their love of homey nature, pretty colors, and comfort, know this as well as we do. It was the love of home that kept people going in the dark years during which Tolkien wrote these volumes, when the shadow of war overhung Europe. The sunlight-drenched green fields of the Shire are long gone by that point in Bilbo’s story, a distant memory, but the memory gives Bilbo his power. It is worth fighting for.