In reality, it's Tolkien's "The Hobbit" that gets decimated in Peter Jackson's second of three films planned as part of a wholly unnecessary trilogy based upon Tolkien's rather slight source material. Even as a good majority of the world quietly agrees that Jackson's trilogy is really nothing more than a special effects extravaganza and money grab, that same majority of the world continues to show up at the box-office and reward Jackson for such cinematic narcissism.
If this sounds like a brow-beating of Jackson, it's definitely not intended in that way. Despite his excessiveness and grandiosity, I find myself rather fond of Jackson and his filmmaking endeavors. It's hard to argue with success, especially in Hollywood, so it's also hard to blame the guy for continuing to build upon his movie-making empire at Wingnut Films. While James Cameron drives me absolutely freakin' insanity with his ego-driven philosophical drivel and techno cinema wastelands, Jackson appears for the most part to be still driven by his passion for the art of filmmaking.
As was true with its predecessor, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has a substantial amount of liberties taken with the material as that's about the only way you could have possibly hoped to create three films out of a book that runs a mere 300+ pages. For most purists, the most egregious violation of the book's sanctity comes with the appearance of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), a popular character from the Lord of the Rings trilogy who is actually not anywhere to be found in the novel "The Hobbit." This time around, Jackson expands upon that presence with a romantic sub-plot involving one of the dwarves and the Elf Warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). While this section completely strays from the book, it also happens to be one of the film's most compelling plot threads mostly owing to Lilly's involving and emotionally resonant performance that gives the film the thread of emotion that it so desperately needs.
This film kicks off where An Unexpected Journey ended as Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his band of not so merry dwarves embark on a journey to reclaim the Lonely Mountain, once home to the dwarves' empire but now completely dominated by a ravenous dragon known as Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).
While I certainly wouldn't consider myself an expert when it comes to cinematic interpretations of Tolkien's writings, it'll be interesting to hear what Tolkien's legion of fans have to say about the film. It seemed, at least to this critic, that Jackson's shifts in tone and story were obvious as both dialogue and atmosphere changed rather abruptly whenever he decided to detour away from "The Hobbit," which was rather often.
A good majority of the over 2 1/2 hour film takes place on the journey itself, though Jackson certainly doesn't rush through the climactic encounter between Bilbo and Smaug. While he doesn't remain faithful to the book, Jackson does turn up the volume on the film's action sequences including a rather inspired spider attack and an involving and incredibly well choreographed escape sequence that is actually in the book but expanded upon greatly here.
It is very likely that many will consider the creation of Smaug to be one of the finest renderings of a dragon to be captured on the big screen so far and, it should be noted, this dance between Smaug and Bilbo is unquestionably one of the film's most satisfying sequences and also one of the most faithful to the source material. While the dragon does look amazing, it suffers from the same weakness as the film itself - Jackson is so bent on utilizing excess that the novelty and excitement wears off after a few minutes and after awhile I couldn't help but think to myself "Would you kill him already?"
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is certainly visually appealing and a more entertaining film than its predecessor. While purists and those hoping that Jackson might tap into Tolkien's deeper and more meaningful themes are likely to be most disappointed, it's likely true that a good majority of America is simply looking for an escapist popcorn flick and on this level the film certainly succeeds. It is certainly always a joy watching Ian McKellen be Gandalf, and Evangeline Lilly is winning a Tauriel. As Bard, Luke Evans offers the film ample doses of humor and action and fantasy.
There is much to admire on the technical side, though the usually reliable Howard Shore disappoints with an original score that is surprisingly devoid of emotion and drama. Despite Jackson's ever increasing use of technology, the film is also a surprisingly non-immersive experience even when watching it in 3-D. While the film certainly entertains, there's never really a time when one experiences that desired sense of surrender that should accompany a film created on such a grand scale.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug warrants a modest recommendation and is, even when its extensive liberties are considered, a vast improvement upon its predecessor. While some would say it's impossible to consider a middle film a true "stand alone" film, in my eyes when a filmmaker makes the artistic choice to intentionally expand upon material for the sake of creating a trilogy then we as an audience have a right to expert each of those films to stand out on its own.
The desolation of Smaug?
Actually, it's more like the desolation of Tolkien's "The Hobbit."
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic