Peter Jackson returns to J.R.R. Tolkien’s immersive Middle Earth for the second of three films inspired by The Hobbit. In The Desolation of Smaug, Gandalf sends the brave dwarves and the sneaky Bilbo Baggins off on their own again to reach Erebor before the keyhole to the former dwarf castle will be hidden for another year. Bilbo’s team encounters a less than hospitable kingdom of familiar Elves while Gandalf sets out to stop the rise of the Necromancer before the world is overrun by darkness.
Unlike An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug is not afraid of going darker with The Hobbit. It mostly works. The story has already been stretched out and altered so much that the lighter tone in the funnier scenes acts as a nice buffer for the darker visuals and action sequences.
Even though Bilbo is not front and center in the second chapter, it’s still very much Bilbo’s story. At the start of The Desolation of Smaug, he almost shows Gandalf the ring he stole from Gollum in the last film but chooses not to. The sneaky hobbit hired to sneak is now harboring a deep secret. Gandalf clearly knows, but no one else does. And as Bilbo uses the ring more to go about undetected, he starts to become more aggressive. He’s not comfortable with that at all.
Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo again, creating tiny little moments of anxiety and quirk that draw focus even when Bilbo is just creeping along in the background. The true standouts, though are Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel and Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug.
Tauriel is the first major original character created for Jackson’s Tolkien films and she’s a brilliant addition. Tauriel is an Elfen warrior who can outfight Legolas himself. She is ruthless in battle and more compassionate than any other elf when the weapons are put away. Her concern is not the protection of her kingdom but of the world itself. She’s clearly being set up to work with Gandalf in the third film to fight against the Necromancer and I can’t wait. She is, without a doubt, the strongest female lead to appear in any of the films, forgoing love or tradition for an actual impact on the world.
Smaug, briefly revealed at the end of An Unexpected Journey, is terrifying. Jackson milks the initial confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug for all it’s worth. I can’t say there’s much new dialogue between them that didn’t appear in The Hobbit novel, but the scene goes on far longer than the book would suggest. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman already have a strong working relationship from the BBC Sherlock series and they clearly relished the opportunity to play against type as enemies in The Desolation of Smaug.
The big problem with the film is the pacing. The Hobbit is not a long book. Splitting that narrative over three films is a huge mistake. The ending point for The Desolation of Smaug is terrible. I could not imagine a worse stopping point in this story. It’s not even a cliffhanger; it’s just an abrupt stop. An Unexpected Journey hit just the right spot to pause The Hobbit without detracting from the story arc; The Desolation of Smaug has hit a point that’s going to require a recap of previous events before it can continue. That’s a big problem.
Still, for a Tolkien fan, Peter Jackson has not lost his touch. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a really enjoyable experience. The film does not feel long at all and it’s filled with all those Middle Earth touches that will leave you grinning in the theater. Jackson really is one of the all time great fantasy directors (not just The Lord of the Rings, but King Kong reset as a romance and Heavenly Creatures using high fantasy as a metaphor for escapism and teenage angst) and he knows how to make the audience connect to the genre. The Desolation of Smaug is not an exception.
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