Last year’s first installment of “The Hobbit” trilogy – “An Unexpected Journey” – moved slowly at points, even if time both stopped and raced during Bilbo Baggins' pulse-pounding encounter with Gollum.
The “Riddles in the Dark” sequence evoked the best of the “Lord of the Rings” movies – a series of films defined by its villains as much by its heroes, and, of course, by a certain piece of jewelry.
With the latest “Hobbit” episode, "The Desolation of Smaug," set to hit theaters Friday, much of the hype centers on Evangeline Lily’s heroic butt-kicking elf, Tauriel, who wasn’t part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary universe. But the movie’s hopes for record success are riding largely on the scaly back of the series’ latest villain: Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug, a dragon with an attitude.
Smaug is going up against the deceivingly resourceful Bilbo Baggins. But perhaps more significantly, the fire breather is pitted in our minds against Gollum.
As Gollum/Smeagol, Andy Serkis changed film by giving rubber-faced reality to CGI effects. Gollum hates himself and we hate him when we’re not pitying him. But Gollum is a relatable character – his struggle against his inner weakness, his thirst for the power of a ring that’s both his salvation and damnation is ultimately very human.
As Smaug, Cumberbatch faces a bigger challenge, in some respects. He’s working with just his voice, whereas Serkis got to embody his character. Smaug is also less relatable – he’s guarding the gold, but his motivation is murky. What does an all-powerful dragon need with riches?
Cumberbatch arrives with some chemistry with Martin Freeman, who is in his second outing as the reluctantly adventurous Bilbo. In “Sherlock,” Cumberbatch and Freeman make a great bickering Holmes and Watson. But Middle-earth is a long way from Baker Street.
A smoky air of mystery still surrounds Smaug, whom we got a peek of at the end of the first “Hobbit” film. Previews allow only shadowy glimpses, recalling “Jaws,” whose power rested in great part in Steven Spielberg’s sparing, but effective use of the shark in the film. We can expect “The Desolation of Smaug,” though, to be more akin to Spielberg’s 1993 “Jurassic Park,” in which the running-amok dinosaurs emerged as film’s first runaway CGI stars.
Smaug’s full-bodied debut comes at the crucial midway point of “The Hobbit” trilogy, a decade after “The Return of the King” set the standard for big-screen Tolkien. Peter Jackson and Co. took on a very different challenge this time around: With “The Lord of the Rings,” they jammed three meaty books into a movie each. Now they’re stretching one slender volume into three flicks that presumably will be the final cinematic word on the franchise.
The introduction of Tauriel and the return of Orlando Bloom as Legolas, who wasn’t in the book version of “The Hobbit,” are anathema to purists, but not a problem to the rest of us – as long as the movie is as great as we hope it will be.
There will be epic battles, adding to the “Rings” canon of perhaps the best massive fight scenes in movie history. But many of the series' strongest moments turn on frightening one-on-one encounters, as hobbits Bilbo and Frodo, stand-ins for the audience, deal with forces far larger than those normally found in The Shire.
Like the ring and the gold Smaug hoards, Tolkien's world is precious to fans. As long as Jackson and his team keep to the spirit of the book, the only desolation we’ll be feeling is the dread of knowing that the trilogy will be coming to an end with next year’s “There and Back Again.” In the meantime, check out a trailer for Smaug’s big close-up below:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.