This adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s century-old novel brings to life a really fantastic fantasy world of wizards, dwarves, elves, dragons and all manner of ferocious creatures clashing in a melee-style free-for-all, where frankly it’s hard to tell who’s on whose side, even if you have seen the other installments, but especially if you haven’t.
Perhaps the best way to distill Tolkien’s purpose is to dissect the character motivations:
Smaug, the fire-breathing dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) is pure evil. He is motivated completely by greed and will simply destroy whatever, or whomever, gets in his way. This installment begins with the fire-breathing Smaug laying waste to a whole city. He seems unstoppable, until someone with incredible resourcefulness and bravery dares to stand in his way. That’s Bard (Luke Evans), who also inspires others with his ferocious energy to combat all the evil that threatens peace. Then there’s Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who became king by virtue of his courageous leadership, but once in a position of authority he got power-drunk and all his altruism was crushed under a heady load of success and prosperity. If he doesn’t repent, he could turn into the next Smaug. But first he has to remember that he has a soul. And a conscience. Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) belongs to another realm, and it isn’t her fight but she could easily help out at a critical moment if she’s willing to risk her own cocoon of personal safety to do so. As for Turiel (Evangeline Lilly), she could afford to be above the fray indefinitely, but she accidentally fell in love and is surprised to find within her a passion she didn’t know existed. This also makes her vulnerable to loss and heartache. One of the tender moments between all the fantasy combat is when she realizes her loved one is slain and kneeling over his lifeless form exclaims, “Why does it hurt so much?” And the answer is simple: because she cared. And most of us would agree that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
Of course when Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) got into this adventure in the first place, he was just sitting in his favorite armchair reading by the fireplace, minding his own business. He didn’t realize how boring his life had become. And how much of life he was missing by enjoying his solitary leisure (100 years later, we have our electronic version of the same temptation). Bilbo discovers something along the way of catapulting himself outside of his comfort zone: He finds energy he didn’t know he had. He realizes that his calm when everything around him is falling apart is not a trait that others readily possess. He’s been a bit of a scoundrel in the past – a successful thief – but even that negative could be turned into a positive because of the courage and audacity he developed. And yes, one of his greatest treasures – the ring with magical powers – he didn’t exactly come by honestly, either, but then, at the end it’s about putting to good use everything you have for the cause that is beyond yourself. (After all, there have been plenty of scoundrel preachers who’ve managed to do some good despite themselves.) But even Bilbo needs a mentor, a wise and wizened old adventurer, and Ian McKellen is the perfect Gandalf. He’s the one who’s still thinking strategically while everyone else is enmeshed in the merely tactical.
As for Ian Holmes standing in for the older Bilbo… well, not many of us actually resemble the persons we were when we were younger, either. But the goal of sitting in your armchair, reading your books comfortably by the fireplace, planting trees in your yard and watching them grow – it’s still benignly appealing. Until adventure beckons like the Seduction of the Sirens in another, earlier adventure epic. But that’s for another fantastic fantasy trilogy.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.