J.R.R. Tolkien wrote “The Hobbit” in 1937, shortly before the winds of war began to blow in Europe. It was a children’s book, designed to be read a chapter at a time just before bed, and there is a sense of whimsy to it. When Tolkien returned to Middle Earth for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was after the ruin and devastation of WWII and the millions of lives lost. One can see the echo of the war in the trilogy, and it has a much darker tone. It’s a bit like if a Hardy Boys book turned out to be the introduction for James Elroy’s “L.A. Confidential.”
When Peter Jackson adapted the book, he struggled with this dichotomy. Was it a stand-alone, or was it a prequel? In the first movie, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, he tried to go both ways, and it was jarring to go between simpleton trolls and lethal Orcs. Wisely, with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, he has firmly come down on the side of prequel. With all the extra material that has expanded the story into a trilogy, it was the only choice.
Having survived their encounter with Azog and the Orcs – sounds like a band name, doesn’t it – Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves, augmented by Gandalf the Gray (Ian McKellan) and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continue on their way to the Lonely Mountain. The Orcs, though, have not given up, and they dog the travelers throughout the movie. After leading them to semi-safety in the home of a skinchanger, Gandalf leaves the group to investigate the Necromancer (voice by Benedict Cumberbatch, who also provides the voice for Smaug).
A shortcut through a forest leads them into a nest of giant spiders. With the help of the One Ring and his elfin sword, Bilbo rescues the dwarves, but they are soon captured by Wood-elves, including future Fellowship member Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). King of the Wood-elves Thranduil (Lee Pace) and Thorin have no love lost between them, ever since Thranduil refused to help Thorin’s people after Smaug the dragon forced them from their home under the Lonely Mountain. Using the Ring, Bilbo again helps the dwarves escape, and they meet Bard (Luke Evans), a boatman who transports them to Lake-town, in the shadow of the mountain. Their welcome there – eventually – is warmer than what they received from the elves, but they have only a brief respite before they continue on to the mountain and finally face Smaug.
Even at two hours and forty minutes, The Desolation of Smaug has a plot that races along so that it feels like a much shorter movie. Kudos to the adaption by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyen, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro for accomplishing this, even with the extra material added to pad out the original book. They also created Tauriel, which has caused some consternation for Tolkien purists. With this being a prequel, though, the creation is defendable. Tolkien populated “The Hobbit” with a male cast and geared the story for adolescent boys. By the time of the trilogy, and after the contributions made by women to the war effort, he created Galadriel, Eowyn, and Arwen, three rich roles performed by Cate Blanchett, Miranda Otto, and Liv Tyler respectively in the trilogy. Tauriel is a bridge character needed to keep the story in balance. It helps the Evangeline Lilly fills the role beautifully, matching Legolas in martial prowess.
As with any three-act, the second act is designed to build to the point of highest tension and greatest peril, and The Desolation of Smaug accomplishes that brilliantly, so much so that some may find the ending of the film jarring. Most, though, will simply mark December 17, 2014 on their calendars and start counting the days until the final volume of the trilogy is released.
I saw this movie at a newly rebuilt theater near my home. It was playing on the main screen in a huge theater with stadium seating and a digital projection screen thirty feet high and seventy feet across. The true breakthrough incorporated in this theater, though, is the next generation of digital sound, the Dolby Atmos system. This is the largest jump ahead in sound technology since THX and Dolby changed the game back in the late ‘70s.
The system incorporates up to 64 speakers in the ceiling of the theater along with a dozen woofers behind the screen. It creates a full 360 degree experience. As an example of the system for viewers at the start of the film, there’s a short where a maple seed drops from a branch and helicopters down to the ground, spinning out over the audience. It’s beyond quadraphonic stereo – you can tell exactly where the seed is when it’s flying over your head. Peter Jackson has said, “Dolby Atmos provides the completely immersive sound experience that filmmakers like myself have long dreamed about.”
The system is slowly spreading out across the U.S. and internationally. If you haven’t experienced it yet, it is worth looking for it.