The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug improves on the first Hobbit film. Director Peter Jackson evidently learned from the reaction to some of An Unexpected Journey’s goofier elements and eliminated much of the silliness that permeated the first film. Radagast the Brown and his bunny-drawn sled are barely to be seen, for example. (Comparisons to how differently Jar Jar Binks was presented in Star Wars Episodes One and Two come to mind.) In addition, The Desolation of Smaug flows better with it only slowing up for a particular subplot. One thing that got a lot of book purists crying foul is that a majority of what appears onscreen does not come from Tolkien, but from the imaginations of the screenwriters. They didn’t eliminate major plot points, though; in fact, they expanded many of them. For the most part I consider what was added to be quite entertaining, so I don’t have a problem with it.
Just like The Lord of the Rings films The Desolation of Smaug picks right up where An Unexpected journey left off. Not counting cameos, all of the actors from the first film return for the second one, with the exception of Andy Serkis as Gollum (who functioned as the Second Unit Director for all three films after completing his scenes). Joining them in this movie are Lee Pace as Elvish King Thranduil (who only had a silent cameo in the first film), Evangeline Lilly as the Elf Tauriel (a wholly made up character), Luke Evans as Bard – a man of Laketown, Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown, Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice of Smaug (he also voiced the Necromancer in the first film and does again in this one), and another returning LotR character – Orlando Bloom as Legolas. While not mentioned in the Hobbit book, Legolas’ father is Thranduil in the LotR books, so having him appear is not that much of a stretch. I also learned after I saw this film that Stephen Colbert cameoed as a Laketown man wearing an eye patch. If so, I didn’t recognize him.
This film touches on all the major plot points from the book in chapters 7 through 12 – Beorn, Mirkwood, spiders, Thranduil, barrels on the river, Laketown, and Smaug. The biggest differences are that some of these are expanded to include more action or more intrigue. And in the case of the section dealing with Thranduil, a new character of Tauriel was created to, as the female co-writers say, give women some romance to be interested in. Frankly, I think they are selling their own gender short – saying that if there’s not some kind of romance in the film women won’t enjoy themselves.
Tauriel and Legolas are sort of “an item”, with Legolas being more interested in it than she is. Enter “the hot dwarf” Kili (Aidan Turner) and he and Tauriel are soon flirting up a storm, to the point where Legolas gets jealous. I have a higher appreciation for romance in a film than most guys, but trying to insert a love triangle into the middle of this story was a bit much. The film dragged some during this section. They could have still had their romance with Tauriel and Kili, left Legolas out of a triangle, and the film would have flowed better. Overall, it’s not that big a problem since it is a minor part of the film. It’s obviously setting up something emotional for the third film, as anyone who has read the book will know.
The highlights of the film are the escape by barrel down the river to Laketown and Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug. The first is described in two or three uneventful paragraphs in the book. In the film it becomes a huge action scene with dwarves, orcs, and elves all engaged in escaping, chasing, or fighting. And the scenes with Bilbo and Smaug were very well rendered. Both the dragon and the vast amounts of coins/treasure inside the mountain looked very real and believable. And for fans of the British TV show Sherlock, there’s an added bit of fun from having the two main characters (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) verbally sparring with each other as their characters of Smaug and Bilbo.
Prior to this scene with Smaug, though, Bilbo really doesn’t have much to do. He’s more of a supporting character in the film to Thorin (who is with him) and Gandalf (who is in his own scenes looking into the Necromancer.)
Like the first Hobbit film The Desolation of Smaug was nominated for three Oscars. However, the only nomination they share in common was for visual effects. The first film received noms for Production Design and Hair/Makeup. The second film received noms for the two sound categories. I’m amazed that the two films didn’t receive ones for sound in the first film and ones for Production Design/Hair/Makeup for the second. Both films shared all the same elements, were filmed at the same time, and employed the talents of the same people in those categories. No one ever said Oscar nominations were always logical.
One thing about the two films that is quite different is how they end. Without spoiling anything, the first film ends with everyone in a good place, ready to start the next step of their journey. The second one ends with a real “oh shit” cliffhanger. It definitely stirs interest in seeing what happens next.
If you’re interested in Tolkien’s stories you’re going to see this anyway. If you are more ambivalent to them, and were somewhat let down by the first Hobbit film, then definitely give this one a chance. It’s a step up from the first one. Unless you are a book purist I highly recommend this film.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars