Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (TDoS) is now in theaters, and it continues the story of Bilbo and the Dwarves that started in last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Both movies are based on JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit novel, with the sequel picking up right after the conclusion of An Unexpected Journey. Thorin’s company along with Gandalf the Wizard and Bilbo Baggins have made their way over and under the Misty Mountains en route to the abandoned dwarf kingdom of Erebor, but their journey is far from over as detailed in The Desolation of Smaug.
The movie opens with a flashback that features the first meeting of Thorin and Gandalf, with the latter cleverly persuading Thorin to reclaim his kingdom with the secret hope of having bolstered defenses in the east from a new unseen threat that he senses. Scenes like this help to flesh out the behind the scenes motivations of Gandalf for prodding Thorin to assemble his company in the first place. It shows the wizard’s cunning and foresight, and quite frankly it offers a look at just how powerful and influential the wizards of Middle-earth are in regards to the political landscape of Tolkien’s vast universe. The book would always hint at Gandalf’s overall motivations, but it never truly fleshed out what he was up to when he enlisted Thorin and his dwarven brothers, so it’s nice to see more of the behind the scenes dealings taking place in the film version.
After the opening, The Desolation of Smaug transitions back to Bilbo and his newfound pals who are still fleeing Azog, the large white orc baddie from the first film. It’s immediately made clear that Bilbo has fully been accepted into Thorin’s company, and is now treated as one of the team. The dwarves almost share a reverence for him after his feats at the end of the first Hobbit film, which isn’t too unlike the book. After all, both the book and movie are about personal growth, both for the better and the worse, so Jackson has been able to translate that motif to the silver screen quite well.
Jackson was also able to perfectly illustrate the power of the One ring over those who wear it thanks to Martin Freeman’s brilliant acting. Very early on in TDoS it’s made clear that the One ring is already starting to affect Bilbo’s mind. Freeman’s facial expressions and dialogue delivery really helped to translate the power that the ring holds over its wearer, and how it consumes their soul. Bilbo begins lying about the ring to Gandalf, and even has a Gollum moment when he drops the ring during the battle with the spiders, which is a great recreation of the same scene from the book (that is the spider scene in general).
Bilbo’s love affair with his new magic ring is one major thread from Tolkien’s novel, but the other is the personality change that Thorin goes through. TDoS offers a few spot on moments that showcase the paranoia and mistrust that the King Under the Mountain starts to exhibit, which were all elevated by Richard Armitage’s portrayal of Thorin. He nailed a scene with King Thranduil, the King of the wood elves, where he refuses a deal that would set him and his compatriots free thanks to his greed and hate for the elven race. There’s also a scene with Bilbo inside Erebor that really details Thorin’s eroding mental condition, and his inability to trust anyone at that point.
Even with all of the extra content added in by Jackson it was refreshing to know that he didn’t lose the focus on the core narratives told in The Hobbit, which relate to emotions and experiences we all face in life. At times some of the filler content really does drag on, but in a sense it also helps to visually detail a lot of what was going on in Middle-Earth that Tolkien only briefly touched on in a sentence or two in the book.
Jackson made a point to pull back the covers on what Gandalf was up to when he left Thorin’s company before they entered Mirkwood, which really helps to paint the full scope of what was going on in The Hobbit that directly led to the events that play out in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. You get to see who the Necromancer is and what he’s been up to, and how Gandalf found out about his return.
The scenes at Dol Guldor also help to reinforce the fact that the whole reason the Necromancer has gained a new level of power is thanks to Bilbo finding the One ring, and bringing it out of the Misty Mountains so its master could feel its presence again. I really did appreciate Jackson’s ability to bring the larger Middle-earth political picture into play even though it’s only briefly mentioned in the book. It definitely helps to tie The Hobbit into the Lord of the Rings in a visual manner versus Tolkien’s written allusions.
For a fairly well read Tolkien fan these new scenes really were enjoyable for the most part even if they do make the movie drag on for about 20-minutes too long. Although, there are a few fundamental changes that just felt too far off from what Tolkien laid down in the book. These scenes revolve around the new Tauriel character played by Evangeline Lilly, and her odd budding love affair with Kili the dwarf. I get why Jackson infused Legolas and even Tauriel into these films, but the whole love triangle with them and Kili is just flat out weird and not really needed. Jackson is obviously going after the hearts of female movie goers, but the whole concept just felt out of place, and too big of a departure from the book, making it a distraction from the core narrative.
Jackson also rewrote the entire Smaug scene to make it more Hollywood, which felt kind of out of place and like a gimmick to extend the film. For some reason he has a large portion of the dwarfs enter Erebor to confront Smaug, which isn’t the case at all in the books. All sorts of shenanigans ensue to ramp up the action quotient in the film, which sort of takes away from Bilbo’s role in the whole adventure. Luckily Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Smaug is spot on, and the visual design of the dragon is impressive to say the least, so the extended version of his first meeting Bilbo is still enjoyable and fun to watch, but Tolkien purists may take issue with how the entire scene plays out.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug ends before the shit hits the fan if you will, which felt kind of abrupt, but it does setup the third film to be even more action packed than part two. There’s easily enough content left for a third film, which is due in part to Jackson’s embellishments, but also because The Hobbit is much more expansive than you may have first thought. The unabridged audio book takes over 10 hours to get through, so it’s not like having three 3-hour long films is a pure cash grab on the part of Warner Bros. and Jackson. There’s plenty of content to tell, and with Jackson expanding on parts of the book that were glossed over by Tolkien, fans of the films and books are getting a deeper look at the happenings of Middle-earth during the waning days of its raucous Third Age.
With a cast that features the likes of Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, and Martin Freeman; it’s hard to make a bad film. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a highly entertaining visual tour of Middle-earth and its inhabitants that is also action packed from start to finish. Some of Jackson’s tinkering with the plot pays off, while other changes feel too out of place, but overall it’s a fantastic movie, and a great addition to the Tolkien film universe. It’s better than the first film, and sets up an angst ridden cliffhanger for the third, so it accomplished its task as a middle act in a trilogy, and is well worth a viewing on the big screen.