Peter Jackson’s second film based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic fairy-story “The Hobbit” opened today in theaters around the country. In “The Desolation of Smaug,” Thorin Oakenshield and company continue their journey from the Misty Mountains into the depths of the ancient Dwarf kingdom of Erebor. As he did in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” director and screenwriter Jackson (along with fellow screenwriters Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro, and Fran Walsh) have made several changes to Tolkien’s story.
This is definitely not the tale that enchanted the world when it was first published in 1937. Jackson’s movie is a non-stop thrill ride of action sequences, ranging from a flume ride in barrels down the River Running while being attacked by a platoon of Orcs to hide-and-seek with the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Erebor itself. There’s a lot of politicking—between the Elf-King Thranduil (Lee Pace) and Thorin (Richard Armitage), and between Bard (Luke Evans) and the Master of Lake Town (Stephen Fry)—that sometimes feels more like “Game of Thrones” than “The Hobbit.” It’s a much darker story than Tolkien’s original children’s book.
Jackson begins “The Desolation of Smaug” with a scene drawn, not from Tolkien’s novel, but from another of the author’s works, “The Quest for Erebor,” in which Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) urges Thorin to win back his grandfather’s kingdom. The wizard sees a conflict emerging in Middle Earth that will threaten the peace of the world—a war that will be led by the gathering swarms of Orcs under the command of the Necromancer.
The movie picks up with Thorin, the dwarfs, Bilbo (Martin Freeman), and Gandalf on the east side of the Misty Mountains, but still being pursued by the Orcs who were following them in the previous film. The Orcs continue hot on the tracks of the company throughout the picture, even following them to Thranduil’s gates and into the streets of Lake Town. We also meet several new characters, including Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reprising his role from “The Lord of the Rings”) and a new elf created especially for the films: the female warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly).
All the characters in “The Desolation of Smaug” are very aware that they’re part of a greater story. Jackson and his fellow writers emphasize this by introducing a second story line following Gandalf as he pursues the mystery of the Necromancer’s identity—something that was only mentioned briefly in the novel. Even Smaug, far from being satisfied with his treasure, is aware of the Necromancer’s power and is ready to wreak havoc on the world at his master’s command.
“The Desolation of Smaug” is the second film in a movie trilogy, and it suffers from the problems that those kinds of films have: it begins in the middle of events, and it ends inconclusively. In addition, the action sequences, although well-executed, sometimes slow down the story. (Smaug chasing the dwarfs around Erebor in particular seems interminable.) The desolation of the dragon is caused by a spiritual sickness that is supposed to affect not only the landscape, but the people too—especially Thorin—and that isn’t evident here. The cinematography of “The Hobbit” seems more muted than that of “The Lord of the Rings” because it was shot digitally instead of on film.
But despite this, Jackson and his team have done well in building a new story that interfaces with “The Lord of the Rings.” And Tolkien himself never stopped rewriting “The Hobbit,” sometimes changing his own story drastically in order to suit his evolving concept of Middle Earth. Verdict: Worth seeing.