Film Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Peter Jackson's vibrant and spry epic returns a sense of adventure, along with more resonant characters, to what had been turning into a dutiful slog.

Like a bear shaking off a winter’s slack, this second installment of Peter Jackson’s unprecedented trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s first novel finds its bearings by both reconnecting and relearning the most important rule of adapting books for the screen: Do no harm. Last year’s first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, was a dutiful exercise in world-building that exemplified the worst tendencies of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. Some problems persist—even more screenings will feature the cartoonishly sped-up 48-frames-per-second rate—but the series has found its footing, replacing complacency with storytelling confidence. With one left to go, Jackson’s Tolkien films are beginning to feel all of one piece, layering an epic adventure with darker themes of greed and World War II-haunted threats to civilization instead of the cash-raking machine it was threatening to become.

The elements click smartly together in The Desolation of Smaug like they haven’t since The Fellowship of the Ring. This is partly due to Jackson having better material to work with. With its characters fresh out of the Misty Mountains, the film hurls them from one danger to the next. In short order they’ve been taken in by a shape-shifting man-bear friend of Gandalf’s, sent into the inky-black vastness of the perfectly named Mirkwood, fought off giant hissing spiders, and imprisoned in the Escher-like underground palace of the wood-elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace). Looming in the distance is the treasure-filled Lonely Mountain, with its dragon guardian Smaug, and the unspoken worry that this tiny band of homeless dwarves and their unlikely burglar Bilbo (Martin Freeman) will be utterly outmatched once they arrive.

Jackson paces things more nimbly this time, leaping from one adventure to the next with little breath to spare for anything but the occasional gag. One of the book’s better sequences, where the dwarves and Bilbo escape danger by riding a river inside barrels, is exploded into a veritable 3D theme-park ride, with elves and orcs in a running and leaping battle on the river banks. The simultaneous, overlapping chase scenes nearly collapse upon themselves but retain a giddy, “Can you top this?” thrill.

What’s lost, again, are Tolkien’s textured backgrounds. There’s no room for his long and gloriously detailed meals, the days of slogging along, and Bilbo’s running interior monologue. But what’s replaced it is better this time around. Instead of repetitively cutting back to the orc band chasing Bilbo and the dwarves, Jackson has expanded the story to wrap in more characters. Some are from the book, such as the noble-hearted human Bard (Luke Evans, exhibiting some classic matinee-idol charisma that the series dearly needed) and the oleaginous Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry, witty but underused).

There’s also the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), still exhibiting that anti-dwarf bigotry he wouldn’t lose until decades later—elves being nearly immortal—and the insertion of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, perfectly cast), a wood-elf warrior maiden with nearly unparalleled swashbuckling abilities who didn’t exist in Tolkien’s book. The two provide cover for Bilbo and company while also playing two parts of a curious love triangle, Kili the dwarf (Aidan Turner) having eyes for the red-haired Tauriel as well. This should have been disastrous, a nakedly commercial stab at upping the romance quotient after complaints that An Unexpected Journey had too much action and no female characters. But Jackson weaves them into the story with a showman’s light hand. He also works in the book’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre-like clashes over treasure and power that start fracturing Bilbo and the dwarves. A backdrop of the elves’ complacency about the growing dangers posed by the orcs, and Tauriel’s plea of “Are we not part of this world?” introduce an echo of Munich 1938.

Somewhat lost in all the hugger-mugger of chases and fell prophecies are Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Bilbo. The wizard spends most of the movie as Tolkien had him: mucking about in a dark tower where Sauron is gathering his forces for the war to come years later. Bilbo proves himself the unexpected hero time and again, but doesn’t get to shine until the film’s awesome last segment. Jackson keeps Tolkien’s playful language intact for the scene where Bilbo plays a witty verbal delaying game with Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), a snakelike and jewel-encrusted, fire-breathing beast with a Gollum-like love of riddles and a vanity that recalls Cumberbatch’s work in “Sherlock” with Freeman. It’s all over too soon, not something that could be said about almost any other film in the series.

If An Unexpected Journey was a gallumping orc, smashing its way through the plot, The Desolation of Smaug is a fleet-footed elf, leaping through the trees.