Just in time for the holidays, Middle Earth fans can watch “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” a brand-new installment in the Hobbit trilogy.
Director Peter Jackson has spent the better part of the last 15 years adapting author J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary fantasy saga for the big screen (the final film in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was released 10 years ago this month). But though a generally enjoyable movie, diehard fans may struggle to decide whether this new film is Jackson’s cinematic Red Ryder BB Gun or a spiteful lump of coal.
“The Desolation of Smaug” continues the tale started in last year’s “An Unexpected Journey,” following the adventures of a dozen dwarves, a Hobbit named Bilbo (played by Martin Freeman) and a white-bearded wizard named Gandalf (Ian McKellen).
In the first film, Bilbo was recruited to help the dwarves reclaim their homeland, which was stolen by a fire-breathing dragon named Smaug. Having proven his value through the first run of adventures, Bilbo begins the second installment in a more established position, made evident early on as the crew battles Orcs and a company of giant spiders that will evoke (and transcend?) fan memories of Frodo’s encounter with Shelob in “The Return of the King.”
As one can tell from the title (and the film’s trailers), this path eventually leads to an encounter with Smaug himself, voiced by Benedict “Khan 2.0” Cumberbatch. But before that showdown, the company must deal with a new and far more ornery batch of elves (including the familiar Legolas, played by returning Orlando Bloom), who live in the forest of Mirkwood.
If this is all new to you, chances are you will read “The Desolation of Smaug” as a complex-but-enjoyable fantasy piece, with plenty of action and well-timed humor. Longtime Tolkien fans, however, will find additional evidence to both help and hurt the cause of the new film.
The storyline for “The Desolation of Smaug” stays true to Tolkien’s original novel, though Jackson has enhanced the story to create stronger ties to the Rings trilogy, which, though filmed 10 years ago, takes place after “The Hobbit” chronologically. While the main group deals with more immediate threats, Gandalf is persistently warned of the gathering storm that will become Sauron’s wrath in the distant future, and we see early evidence of the poisoning power of the One Ring, which Bilbo obtained in “An Unexpected Journey.” Perhaps the most interesting item to note is the grumpy disposition of elf hero Legolas, whose comic bromance with Gimli the dwarf has yet to soften his countenance.
The most obvious addition to the cast is “Lost” veteran Evangeline Lilly, who plays a warrior elf named Taureil. Purists may object to the invention of her character until they realize that without her, “The Desolation of Smaug” doesn’t feature a single substantial female character. Luckily, Lilly is more than up to the task. In fact, she is integrally involved in a number of exciting fighting sequences that highlight the film, one a brawling river chase that manages to pack action, comedy and multiple “Wow!” moments into a few high-paced minutes.
As with all of Jackson’s films, the screen is filled with beautiful imagery, decorating breathtaking New Zealand settings with impressive CGI enhancements. And like last year, 3-D is a viewing option, though not an essential one. Without betraying the storyline, it’s safe to say that Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug is definitely a highlight of the film, though it still pales to any encounter with Gollum throughout the entire series. Cumberbatch lends plenty of weight to his character, but when the dust finally clears from the Middle Earth saga, Andy Serkis’s ring-obsessed ghoul will remain at the top of a heap of memorable Tolkien characters.
Overall, “The Desolation of Smaug” is better than last year’s somewhat sluggish “An Unexpected Journey,” but still falls short of Jackson’s original Rings trilogy. Much of this is due to the source material, since “The Hobbit” was more or less Tolkien’s literary warm-up to “The Lord of the Rings,” and audiences should note that Jackson is stretching 300 pages of source material into a nine-hour trilogy instead of compressing 1,000 pages into a similar result.
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What this comes down to is a question of expectations: If you are content to spend as much time in Middle Earth as possible, you’ll have plenty of fun with this year’s installment. But if you’re a stickler for literary accuracy and pacing, the offering may prove only slightly less frustrating than last December’s film.
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is rated PG-13 for persistent CGI action violence and a number of frightening scenes (including the aforementioned spider battle).
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.