Film Review – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
When I was a young boy I had a toy, a thin rubber man in a bright red and blue outfit. He was just a generic toy purchased for less than a dollar somewhere, but when you’d grab his feet and his head or his legs and his arms and pull, he’d elongate or widen. This was a fun thing to do, but it grossly distorted the original man: he still had a smile and a flower in his pocket, but they were warped and bloated. This is what the new Hobbit trilogy is beginning to feel like to me. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an elongated version of Tolkien’s tale, and while the base similarities to the source material are there, the story has become a little misshapen. This is no longer J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit—this is Peter Jackson’s. But if you remember that, then you’re bound to have a good measure of fun.
The story starts—after a prologue showing Gandalf (Ian McKellen) initiating the quest for Erebor by confronting Thorin (Richard Armitage) in a pub—right where the last one left off: with our band of misfits fleeing the orc raiders on their way to the Mirkwood forest. They start out on the run and continue this way for most of the movie. They run into Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a skin-changer who changes between either a giant who can be reasoned with or a massive bear who can’t. After this they run into Mirkwood, then run into spiders, and run away from spiders, only to run into elves. Unlike the first installment in this trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, this film zips along breathlessly.
I was a fan of the mostly critically dismissed earlier installment. Despite some moments that were frustratingly twee, namely the unexpected party and the confrontation with the trolls, it stayed relatively faithful to the source material. The lush visuals and the depth of detail overwhelmed me and pulled me into the world. That visual splendor is still present in this second installment, but many liberties were taken this time with the narrative. Not all of them are bad.
I enjoyed that Gandalf’s excursions away from the main group were explored in further detail. His investigations of the Necromancer in Dol Guldur bring this trilogy into a more cohesive union with The Lord of the Rings and add higher stakes to the original story. However, some of the additions don’t quite work as well. Evangeline Lilly acquits herself admirably in the role of Tauriel. She does a fine job acting, and she’s a good partner to have in battle, but she feels wedged into the plot by the writers, and the romantic subplot she instigates between herself and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) is completely unnecessary. The political turmoil at Laketown felt out of sync with what I remember of the original story, but this did help in awakening me to the realization that I wasn’t watching Tolkien at play, I was watching Peter Jackson. Jackson is like a boy on the floor of his room playing with Hobbit action figures and amplifying the original events with the fuel of his own imagination.
This is a movie that reveres The Hobbit, but doesn’t view it as sacrosanct. There is room to add a little more adventure, a little more turmoil, a little more action. If you go in understanding this, then you’re sure to have a good time, because this movie is, most importantly, fun. Some of the set pieces become so action-packed it’s a bit ridiculous, but I was still enjoying myself. Little did I know that elves know every which way you can kill an orc, and I believe they probably show all the ways in this film. The confrontation with Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) in his lair is lengthened to a large action set piece that involves the dwarven mines and forge. Nothing at all similar happened in the Tolkien novel, but boy if it’s not a sight to see. And speaking of Smaug. He’s magnificent.
Now, if you’ve noticed, I haven’t really talked much about Bilbo (Martin Freeman). That’s because, unfortunately, with all the additional characters and subplots added to extend the series, Bilbo becomes largely a supporting player. This is a sad side effect that I hope is remedied in the third and final feature, because he’s the main part of the story. With that said, though, this is a great entertainment. I barely felt its three hours and I was never bored. I walked out of the theater with concerns, but also with a smile on my face. If you’re a Tolkien purist, or you’re seeking high-minded fantasy, don’t look here. But if you’re looking for a rollicking swords and sorcery epic, this is the movie for you.