I don’t think that anyone would argue with you if you were to suggest that Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a masterpiece, but his recent adaptations of Tolkien’s predecessor to LOTR, The Hobbit, is a bit more controversial. The main argument against Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy of films is just that – it’s a trilogy, three films based on one 300-page book in contrast to the three films based on three 400-600-page books. Regardless of your opinions on this new trilogy, it’s happening, and though the first film, An Unexpected Journey, wasn’t anything spectacular (my review), The Desolation of Smaug certainly steps up the game and brings to the table a better film.
The second film in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy picks up where the first left off, with the dwarves of Erebor, Gandalf the Grey, and the eponymous hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, rapidly approaching the dark forest Mirkwood, with the orc company led by Azog the Defiler hot on their tail. They seek solace with Beorn, a skin-changer with the ability to transform into a large bear, who houses them and sends them off into Mirkwood. Along the way, the company of Thorin Oakenshield comes across terrifying giant spiders, the Wood-Elves of Mirkwood (including a certain familiar face from the LOTR…), Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the people of Lake-Town, and, finally, the dragon of Erebor itself – Smaug.
Martin Freeman continues to be the perfect Bilbo Baggins, from the way he reacts under stress to the way he communicates with the rest of the company. His energy on-screen surpasses that of any other actor in the film, though Richard Armitage as Thorin is also pretty great here. The character of Thorin is developed better than it was in the first film, with his conflict between his desire for gold and his dedication to his friends being brought into question. The other truly noteworthy performance here is Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction of Smaug. Cumberbatch provided both voice and motion capture for the dragon, and his work is nothing short of amazing. Aside from the fact that the CGI is beautiful and as realistic as it could possibly be for a giant dragon, his voice is an excellent mix of both creepy and charming, and his whole conversation with Bilbo in the hall of gold is every bit as clever and entertaining as the “Riddles in the Dark” scene with Gollum in the first film.
Other characters were not so great. While it was admittedly nice having a familiar face pop up, Orlando Bloom’s return as the elf Legolas feels shoe-horned in, as his character serves no real purpose other than for some cool action scenes and to be a member of the poorly setup (and thoroughly awkward) love triangle between him, Tauriel (an elf character created for the film, played by actress Evangeline Lilly), and Kili (Aidan Turner), one of Thorin’s nephews. The explanation behind the inclusion of Tauriel is to provide a strong female character for audiences to look up to, and, yes, she does have a couple of good action scenes, but the insistence of the filmmakers to create this romantic side-plot makes my feelings toward her and Legolas to be ambivalent at best. I’m also sick of the side-plots involving the orcs hunting down Thorin for his head – more stuff made up for the films that weren’t present in the book. I’m not a book purist, meaning that I don’t think that filmmakers have to follow the book exactly, and, hey, if the filmmakers come up with something that adds to the book’s story in a good way, cool for them, but that is not the case here, at least not in regards to the elf characters.
An addition that I did enjoy this time around is Gandalf’s (Sir Ian McKellen) quest to find out more about this “Necromancer” that we only briefly glimpse in the first film. In the book, Gandalf leaves for chapters at a time, but Tolkien doesn’t expound on what he might be off doing…at least, not in The Hobbit. Jackson has graciously given us a glimpse into those adventures, which are quite entertaining. The Hobbit as written by Tolkien is not a prequel to The Lord of the Rings so much as it is simply a predecessor that takes place in the same universe; you don’t have to read one to understand the other. However, Jackson is turning his trilogy into a prequel for his earlier trilogy, and it’s scenes like Gandalf’s visit to Dol Guldur and the impending rise of Sauron that fulfill this purpose nicely. Also worth noting is the expansion of the role of the Ring in this film; in the book, it is simply a magic ring that turns the wearer invisible, but, as we learn in LOTR, it is actually much more than that. We start to see Bilbo’s fascination and obsession with the ring in this film, watching him slash something to bits to protect his possession of it – or, rather, its possession of him.
I enjoyed the first film in this trilogy well enough, but I can’t deny that our second outing with Thorin and company is much better overall. The feel of The Desolation of Smaug is more natural and (thankfully) less expository, and the higher stakes of this part of the journey bring more action to the table and make the film more enjoyable as a whole. The run-time is about the same as the first film, but it doesn’t feel that way because it does a better job of keeping you on your toes and engaged throughout. Sure, it has its problems – the HFR is still a bit cartoon-y at times – but it’s on-the-whole a superior film, with an ending that will leave you thirsting for more. Howard Shore has composed another great, although more forgettable, score for the film, and Ed Sheeran’s outstanding song “I See Fire” is worth sitting through the credits for. I can only hope that Jackson doesn’t disappoint with the third and final film later this year.
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG-13 – for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images