If Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” was the wind up, then his sequel, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is the pitch. One of the major reasons I couldn’t enjoy last year’s “Hobbit” film more than superficially was because we were being introduced to such a vast array of J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters, locations, mythical creatures, legends, and histories that the experience was slow and more encyclopedic than narrative, even though a narrative was most definitely there to be seen. Although “The Desolation of Smaug” is just as heavy with information that will mean little if anything to those unfamiliar with this novels, it nevertheless abandons the need to explain every excruciating detail and instead plunges headfirst into a fast, fun, fully realized fantasy adventure that’s not only a real pleasure to look at but is also more involving and more entertaining.
The second chapter of a trilogy adapted from Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” a singular source, “The Desolation of Smaug” was, like its predecessor, shot and released at double the frame rates per second. This allows for a picture that, as I explained a year ago, is on par with a high definition television set, the images not only bright and crystal clear but also so lifelike in appearance and movement that it came off less like a movie and more like a live stage production. It also allows for the process of 3D to really come through – second in quality only to IMAX 3D, in my opinion. This process is considered by many audiences to be an affront to moviemaking, although for the life of me, I don’t understand why. In what way is looking at vibrant, photorealistic images any less cinematic than looking at a traditional twenty-four-frame projection? Even if it is less cinematic, which it isn’t, why does that make it evil?
Although there are many convoluted narrative offshoots, they’re all in some way connected to an overarching plot that’s really rather simple. It continues from where “An Unexpected Journey” left off, telling the story of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his entourage of Dwarves as they quest to retrieve a magical stone that will allow the Dwarf leader, Thorin (Richard Armitage), to become king of his kind. This stone is buried somewhere within a mountain cave filled to the brim with treasure, which has unfortunately been invaded by an evil, monstrous dragon named Smaug. There will be a climactic battle at the end of the movie with Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), one of the most impressive cinematic dragons I’ve ever seen. But before that happens, our heroes must outrun an army of malevolent Orcs, escape the webbing of giant spiders within the thick of a mind-bending forest, evade distrustful arrow-slinging Elves, and survive whitewater rapids using barrels as boats. All four “Indiana Jones” films combined would be hard pressed to top the excitement and energy of that latter sequence.
Several side characters have their own parts to play. We’re reintroduced to the Elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who’s in love with a skilled Elf guard named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who harbors a growing affection for, of all creatures, a tall Dwarf named Kili (Adrian Turner). The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) separates from Bilbo and the Dwarves in order to go on his own quest, which I’m sure will make more sense to me once the next film is released. Bilbo and the Dwarves will eventually be sheltered in secret by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), who can supply them with weapons that have been stashed away. He lives in a shabby village built entirely on a river canal and ruled over by an avaricious and cowardly master (Stephen Fry). There are also appearances by Legolas’ father, the Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace), who refuses to help Thorin on his quest, and the Orcs’ master, a noncorporeal black entity known as the Necromancer (also voiced by Cumberbatch), an malevolent sorcerer.
Peter Jackson has repeatedly proven himself a master at overseeing the creation of entire worlds, and he proves himself yet again in “The Desolation of Smaug.” Every location, every set piece, and every landscape is so visually striking that I would have been happy to watch the film without the sound turned on. Sometimes, Jackson relies on the natural beauty of his native New Zealand. Mostly, he relies on art directors, set decorators, and special effects maestros to realize his vision from the ground up. Whether we’re looking at the beauty of a grassy meadow, the awesomeness of a towering mountain peak, or the squalor of a mud-caked hamlet, there’s never a moment when we don’t feel immersed in it all. You’re not watching it, but actually experiencing it. With this film, Jackson also proves that he’s even more adept than usual at priming the audience for the next chapter. This movie ends with one hell of a cliffhanger, one that provides absolutely nothing in the way of narrative or emotional resolution.
I will finish this review by addressing some personal feelings that need to be shared. Well before its release, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” met with backlash from diehard Tolkienites due to the inclusion of the Legolas character, who didn’t appear in the original “Hobbit” novel, and the character of Tauriel, who wasn’t created by Tolkien but rather by Jackson and his fellow screenwriters. The film has also been snubbed by those who felt that last year’s “An Unexpected Journey” was unfaithful to its source by including certain elements from Tolkien’s own “The Silmarillion.” I’ve tried to be as nice as I can about this issue, which I’ve brought up many times, but I’ve reached my breaking point. I’ve officially had it up to here with literary purists. If you willingly choose to deny yourself a theatrical entertainment on the principle of narrative trivialities, not only do you have no business seeing this movie, you have no business seeing any movie at all.