Adapting the first third of Tolkien’s classic novel The Hobbit is quite the challenge, but Peter Jackson and Co. did a fairly good job of it, getting into the spirit of adventure while bringing iconic scenes like the introduction of the dwarves and Gollum’s riddle-game to life onscreen. But the real challenges lie in expanding the story into two more films, both with a running time of about three hours long.
On that mark, The Desolation of Smaug does alright. Not fantastic, not super-amazing—just alright.
Following their escape from the Misty Mountains, Bilbo and the dwarves have to press onward toward Erebor despite the pack of Orcs now on their tail. While Gandalf is forced to leave in order to scout out the dark plans of the Necromancer and the army he’s amassing, the Company’s journey takes them through the twisted forest of Mirkwood, faced with ravenous spiders and unsympathetic Elves. But their path draws toward Lake-town and the Lonely Mountain, where a showdown with Smaug is to be expected.
Compared to the first film, Desolation of Smaug is much more action-oriented. Right from the beginning, we’ve got outrunning the Orcs, fighting Mirkwood spiders, outrunning the Woodland Elves in a very creative chase sequence involving barrels and whitewater rafting, and the final sequence with Smaug the dragon (whose dialogue with Bilbo is almost as delightful as it is in the book, especially with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the two roles). On the other hand, this also means that there’s less time to reflect on things. The story just presses onward, with new characters and developments thrown in all the time.
One such development is an addition by the filmmakers: a romantic subplot, namely between the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and the Elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). I can appreciate why it’s included, as Tauriel does provide a sympathetic portrayal of Elves beyond the raw acrobatic feats of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), as well as a kind of Romeo and Juliet storyline about bridging together rival factions (namely, Elves and Dwarves). But for me, every time the film focused on Tauriel, I was always conscious of the romantic subplot. I don’t mind her character being in the film, but I wish that a female character with heroic qualities could just once have a storyline that didn’t automatically involve romance or a love triangle.
On that same note, I felt like this story needed to focus more on Bilbo, whose characterization as an unexpected hero is becoming a lot stronger as the adventure continues. I would have also liked to see more of Gandalf gathering his allies for the never-before-seen siege on Dol Guldur, lair of the Necromancer (both of which are suitably creepy in the film).
Other performances work out just fine. Stephen Fry provides a colorful interpretation of the Master of Lake-Town while Benedict Cumberbatch is very menacing as the voice of Smaug. The CG animation that went into Smaug is nothing short of impressive. You get a sense of just how massive and powerful this dragon is, and I love the animation for his fire-breathing attacks, too.
If you’re looking for some good action sequences, then the second Hobbit movie has it in spades. But it still feels like a very heavy middle-of-the-trilogy film, throwing in a lot of subplots and last-minute surprises before ending on a very abrupt cliffhanger. It’s decent enough in the context of the overall story, but it doesn’t have quite the same effect as The Two Towers did in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is available through Warner Bros. and playing in theaters at the time of this writing.
Bibliography: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Directed by Peter Jackson. Produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, and Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro. Based on the novel of J.R.R. Tolkien. Perf. Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Stephen Fry, Luke Evans. New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Wingnut Films (studio). Warner Bros. Pictures. US release date: December 13, 2013.