Last year, director Peter Jackson made his triumphant return to Middle-Earth with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first part of a trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved novel. With Jackson behind the camera, there seemed very little reason to be concerned, especially with him having given us his brilliant adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings” a full decade ago, and indeed it turned out just as well as one could have hoped. It was exciting, breathtaking, touching, and even spine-tingling at times (with no small part of that being due to literary nostalgia). However, the journey is far from over, bringing us to the second part of the trilogy, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”
When last we saw our company of heroes, they had been rescued from Azog and his minions by the Eagles and carried to safety. With their enemies still on their tale, they seek refuge in the house of Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a skinchanger who helps them on their way. The next leg of their journey takes them through Mirkwood forest, a dark, mysterious place filled with evil spiders and a group of elves that aren’t on the best of terms with the dwarves. After a near-fatal encounter with the spiders, the dwarves are captured by a company of these elves, including Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evageline Lilly).
They present them to their king, Thranduil (Lee Pace), who offers Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his comrades their freedom in exchange for a part of the treasure that he claims is theirs. The offer is immediately rejected by Thorin, but even when all hope seems lost, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) assists in their escape using the power of his magic ring. An epic barrel ride happens to bring them to the acquaintance and assistance of Bard (Luke Evans), a resident of Laketown, a city very close to the dwarves’ home of Erebor. With our heroes so close to their goal, only one major challenge still awaits them: the evil dragon Smaug, who has taken over their home and treasure under the Lonely Mountain.
Going back to the first film for a minute, if one were to point out what its biggest issues were, it would be the additional material that Jackson and his crew tried to add into it. The events that were straight from the book, they accomplished marvelously, but this new material came off as somewhat clunky and awkward. In my review for the film, I questioned whether or not the added subplots would be worth it as we moved on with the trilogy given that it was a little hard to judge where they were going based on merely one film alone, but now that we have two, we can delve a little more into how well they’re progressing.
Unfortunately, for the second film, they still feel a little clunky. Azog and his minions seem like mere background characters now, only showing up every now and again to make a little more trouble for the gang as they continue on their quest. To make things worse, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is absent for most of the film as he goes to investigate the possible resurrection of the Nazgul (aka The Ringwraiths) and The Necromancer. These sections are rather uneventful, but at least he’s present for a little while, along with a small cameo by Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). Gandalf is indeed gone for large parts of the book, so I suppose they wanted to work him into the story somehow, even if it was just for small portions like these.
As for the events that are taken from the book, Jackson and crew have once again done a marvelous job of bringing them to life. The spider attack is done particularly well, and is actually one of the few instances where the new material was fitted quite well to the existing plot (i.e. the addition of Legolas and Tarueil). I will say this for Azog and his minions: their inclusion in the story leads to one of the most fun action scenes I’ve seen in a while. In this case, it’s the heroes’ infamous barrel escape from the Mirkwood elves. What had been a very straightforward escape in the book turns into a frenzied, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat ride, with even a few laughs thrown in.
My one minor complaint about the first half of the film is that some of the events seemed a little rushed. They’re all there (Beorn, Mirkwood, etc.), but they seemed to be in and out of Beorn’s house in record time, as well as in and out of the elves’ abode in just as short a time. It’s very little to complain about though as the events are still covered very well in two and a half hours, but I have a feeling there’s probably a lot missing that we’ll be seeing in the extended edition next year.
As the title implies, this part of the trilogy finally brings us face to face with Smaug, who is brought to life with voicework and motion capture from Benedict Cumberbatch. Bilbo’s encounter with this fearsome creature is another infamous scene from Tolkein’s novel, and while it had to be tinkered with a bit, it’s still done quite well. However, this does lead into my one major complaint about the film. It doesn’t involve this scene, but rather the filmmakers attempt to throw in a climax where there isn’t one in the book, just to be able to have some action in the last part of this second film.
Most people are familiar with the events of the novel and how the dwarves pretty much end up having nothing to do with fighting Smaug. Well, in order to get them more involved, Jackson and company invented a bloated chase/fight scene involving the dwarves, Bilbo, and Smaug. It stretches on and on, not really adding anything to the film. It’s still a great film overall, but this section will test the patience of many, who will be left shaking their heads at the pointless inclusion. If anything it will make you wish that they had wasted less time here and given it over to the events of the first half.
While it may not be as good as “An Unexpected Journey,” “The Desolation of Smaug” is still an outstanding continuation of the saga that gives fans just about everything they could want from such an adaptation. There’s still much left to look forward to, including the epic Battle of the Five Armies, as well as the final confrontation with Smaug, so my personal anticipation for part three couldn’t be higher. It’s also their final chance to prove that the inclusion of the new material was worthwhile and not just needless fluff used to extend two films into three. As I’ve done all along, I’ll continue to give Jackson the benefit of the doubt given that he’s proven himself with this material time and time again. Either way, an epic conclusion is assured, and will more than likely be well worth the wait. 3.5/4 stars.
Starts tonight in theaters everywhere.
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