In my youth, I was a Tolkien acolyte. The Hobbit was always the bedtime story of choice in my house. When I got older, I read and watched all of The Lord of the Rings and became entrenched in Tolkien’s world. I took time to learn about the intricate relationships between the Valar and the Maiar. I became familiar with the long battle between Morgoth and the armies of Arda. I even had in my possession, I confess for the sake of this review, a small red book from which I desperately tried to learn how to understand different dialects of the Elvish language.
I was, to put it frankly, a no holds barred nerd.
Unlike other fans, however, I was actually excited to see The Hobbit split into three films. I suspected that New Line Cinema’s trilogy announcement was financially motivated, but for me, the decision meant Jackson and Company could introduce more Tolkien lore. More time in Middle-Earth also meant that he could conceivably bridge the narratives of The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings in a more fully fleshed out manner than we saw in the books.
The Desolation of Smaug wins points immediately by sidestepping the worst aspects of An Unexpected Journey. Gone are the pandering Jar Jar Binks-esque antics of Radagast the Brown. In their place are compelling action sequences and well-placed homage to Jackson’s first trilogy. In particular, Gandalf’s showdown in the evil fortress of Dol Guldur is a heart-stopping sequence that sits on par with the best of moments in The Lord of the Rings. Although this scene never happens in the book, it is a shining example of how to alter the source material for the better.
Interspersing these positive changes are more questionable ones. The film’s most depressing turn comes with the addition of the character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). When Peter Jackson expanded the roles of Arwen and Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings movies, he did so within the confines of the books. These characters existed in Tolkien’s epic as two-dimensional female foils for Aragorn, limiting what Jackson could do in his adaptation. Nevertheless, their meager elaboration was a welcome change from the source material.
It is important to remember that The Hobbit novel is an even worse offender, with nary a female character to be found. On paper, then, Jackson made a brilliant decision to rectify this problem by adding Lilly to the cast. Disappointingly, Jackson quickly undermines himself as he relegates Tauriel to the tired role of “love interest.” Although she has moments in spite of her status as a plot device, Tauriel’s story arc feels like a sorely missed opportunity.
The other sagging end of The Desolation of Smaug is its grand scope. We knew Bilbo and his ragtag comrades would fall by the wayside when Jackson and his team decided to expand The Hobbit into three films, but it remains a disheartening to see it unfold on-screen. In many ways, the narrative arc in this trilogy seems to mirror that of The Lord of the Rings as it follows several different concurrent story lines and characters. Unfortunately, Jackson seems to have forgotten that while The Lord of the Rings series is about massive, multifaceted assault on Mordor, The Hobbit is a much quieter tale. In these movies, Bilbo’s simple story of courage and self-confidence seems to have been lost in the shuffle.
By the last scenes in The Desolation of Smaug, it is abundantly clear that Jackson will strive to recreate the bombast of The Return of the King with the final entry in the trilogy. Yet even if he manages to recapture that cinematic magic, the issue of unfaithfulness remains. Fans remain divided on The Hobbit films because Peter Jackson’s vision is a markedly different beast than the books it spawned from. Where you stand on that issue as a viewer will likely determine how you feel about this film.
As a fan, I am willing to admit that The Desolation of Smaug isn’t a very good adaptation of The Hobbit. Nevertheless, it is a solid movie that offers an improvement over An Unexpected Journey. It smartly eschews the former’s biggest missteps in favor of a few smaller ones, yielding a better end-product. Indeed, Jackson’s latest is undoubtedly a lighthearted and ably constructed adventure. And at this point, mellonamin, that’s all we can really ask for.
Movie Verdict: Win