By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 5, 2013 at 2:55PM
As a kind of mea culpa for missing out on Comic-Con, Peter Jackson more than made up for it with Monday's "Hobbit"-Con global fan event for "The Desolation of Smaug," held simultaneously at theaters in LA (the Grove), New York, London, and Wellington. Appearing in Wellington (barefoot, like a hobbit), Jackson unveiled his latest vlog of pick-ups (see below), footage of British pop star Ed Sheeran recording the end song, "I See Fire," and an exclusive sneak peek of 20 minutes that fleshed out some of the thrilling action glimpsed in the new trailer that was also released yesterday (see below as well).
Joining Jackson in the first look/Q&A satellite hook-up were cast members for the second installment of "The Hobbit" trilogy (opening December 13): Evangeline Lilly (at the Grove), Richard Armitage and Orlando Bloom in New York (hosted by CNN's Anderson Cooper), and Lee Pace, Luke Evans, and Andy Serkis in London.
Jackson admitted that the last 10 weeks of shooting both "Smaug" and the finale, "There and Back Again" (December 17, 2014), were the most intense of his life. Yet judging from the footage, the wry wit goes hand in hand with the rousing action, which is why "The Hobbit" continues to be lighter and more whimsical than "The Lord of the Rings" (after all J.R.R. Tolkien envisioned it as a children's story). Nevertheless, there's an ominous foreshadowing of the apocalyptic trilogy to come that makes "Smaug" a dance of light and dark.
For instance, when an orc prisoner is interrogated by the elves Thranduil (Pace), Legolas (Bloom), and Tauriel (Lilly), he reveals, "Death is upon you, the flames of war are upon you." But even the violent reprisal is tempered by gallows humor to remind us of the indefatigable spirit of these Middle-Earth inhabitants. Still, the best line is when Armitage's Thorin says, "If this is to end in fire, then we will all burn together."
Likewise, when Bilbo (Martin Freeman) climbs above the trees to glimpse the majestic beauty of the Lonely Mountain and the distant lake, he's suddenly overtaken by a giant spider, captured in its web, and taken prisoner in its lair. Yet the resourceful hobbit has the ring, which gives him a powerful advantage over any foe.
Yet while there's always someone or something to fear in the dangerous Middle-Earth, Bilbo continually rises to the challenge, whether cleverly rescuing the dwarves in empty wine barrels (but forgetting one for himself), or inspiring confidence to trust Bard the Bowman (Evans) to safely spirit them by boat to Laketown (hiding them inside their barrels under piles of fish).
But when Balin (Ken Stott) asks Bilbo to retrieve the Arkenstone gem inside Smaug's chamber hall, the biggest laugh comes when he nonchalantly tells him to avoid waking the dragon. Once inside, intimidated by the immense sea of gold and the fear of confronting the giant monster, Bilbo finally meets his match and we glimpse a little more of the performance-captured dragon (voiced with menace and mischief by Benedict Cumberbatch). And he's everything you'd expect from the wizards of Weta, which should help earn them a VFX Oscar nomination.
And the feisty Lilly regaled the enthusiastic LA crowd hosted by EW's Anthony Breznican. She explained that her badass new character (created to bring feminine energy) was patterned after none other than Tinkerbell and that her backstory is an orphan whose parents were killed by the orcs.
"In a film that is male-driven and with selfish aims, Tauriel is one of the few characters fighting for truth and justice," Lilly underscored.
As for Jackson, he graciously delivered the fanboy goods: giving theatergoers 20 minutes of new footage instead of the 5 minutes that Warner Bros. recommended, while promising an eventual box set of bloopers for all six Tolkien movies.
Jackson has stated all along that the middle of trilogies are his favorite because you're not hemmed in by intros and conclusions. Again, judging from the footage, I suspect that he's found his groove with "Smaug" and that there will no longer be any lingering doubts from naysayers about his vision for "The Hobbit."