Inevitably, the problem with movies based on literary works is that they’re not literature. Movie audiences get that concept, mostly; but still, changes made to suit the screen can stick in one’s craw when the source material is particularly beloved. For those for whom the works of J. R. R. Tolkien are the epitome of grand-scale fantasy fiction, Peter Jackson’s current three-part padded adaptation of The Hobbit thus presents a challenge.
In part II, The Desolation of Smaug, these detours are many (and occasionally illogical, in terms of the larger narrative of the One Ring). But I’m pleased to report that the adventure quotient is pumped up so high that it’s only in retrospect that the viewer has leisure to ponder Jackson’s breaches of fidelity to the text.
Lest I deter any True Believers in Middle-Earth from avoiding The Desolation of Smaug through my seeming lack of enthusiasm, let me put the plug right up front: This is far-and-away the most fun, rollicking adventure movie of the year. The sword-and-sorcery action almost never pauses for exposition (so if you don’t already know who Beorn is or who the Nazgul used to be or why Elves and Dwarves historically don’t get along, it really behooves you to read the book first).
Onscreen, the giant spiders of Tolkien’s Mirkwood are much creepier than the ones from Rowling’s Forbidden Forest. The breathless chase sequence in which Bilbo Baggins’ (Martin Freeman) dwarf companions are shooting the rapids in barrels, in order to escape imprisonment by the Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace), is going to make a great theme park ride eventually, and it made me wish that I’d chosen to attend a 3-D screening. And then, best of all there’s Smaug – lots of Smaug.
Even the most avid dragon-fanciers will have nothing to complain of here. At last we get to see the last survivor of the Great Worms of Middle Earth in action from plenty of angles, during one long sequence in which Bilbo is trying to distract him with flattery while searching his hoard for the coveted Arkenstone and another in which the party of Dwarven adventurers splits up to lead the dragon on a merry chase through his labyrinthine lair under Erebor, the Lonely Mountain. Smaug looks and sounds as magnificent and terrifying as one could wish, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch with ample draconian greed, hubris and cunning.
The Desolation of Smaug is also crammed with extra battle scenes that should please action-movie fans – mainly involving Orcs, who are not nearly so ubiquitous in the book. These can get to seem a bit obligatory at times. With the exception of their leader Azog (Manu Bennett) – who’s easy to spot thanks to his prosthetic claw, replacing the hand that Dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) hacked off in An Unexpected Journey – the Orcs all look pretty much alike; I thought that I saw Azog’s son/lieutenant Bolg (Lawrence Makoare) killed at least three or four times.
But I guess that the chaotic dishwashing scene at Bag End in the first movie must not have satisfied audiences’ lust for Dwarven mayhem. In the book, Thorin and company do m ore bickering amongst themselves than fighting foes up until the Battle of Five Armies, which won’t happen until the final installment of the movies; here, Jackson gives them plenty of hacking, slashing and dragonbaiting to do. Even Bombur (Stephen Hunter), the lazy, obese Dwarf whom Tolkien makes the butt of many a joke, gets to be spectacularly badass in Desolation, taking out scores of Orcs with his runaway barrel.
When it comes to cinematography and art direction, once again Peter Jackson’s team never lets the viewer down. Though Tolkien’s geography is a bit compressed to keep the pacing brisk – the homeland-recapturing party led by Thorin never actually has to cross the wasteland that gives the second Hobbit film its title, since the Lonely Mountain is depicted as rising right up out of the shores of the Long Lake – Smaug’s lair, Mirkwood, the Elvenking’s halls and especially Laketown are all as handsomely detailed and satisfyingly evocative as the sets in The Lord of the Rings. The Dwarves’ stealthy sojourn in Laketown is also an excuse to introduce the reliably over-the-top Stephen Fry in a fine scenery-chewing turn as the burg-on-stilts’ corrupt and cowardly Master.
For all its relentless action, The Desolation of Smaug does manage to incorporate frequent flashes of humor, mostly as it represents Dwarven swashbuckling from the prosaic point of view of a country-gentleman Hobbit. A rather silly interspecies romantic triangle is introduced into the story, partly to enable the return of teen heartthrob Orlando Bloom in the role of Thranduil’s son Legolas. His performance here confirms past suspicions that Bloom is really no great shakes as an actor, but there’s nobody who looks better kicking Orc butt; some of his acrobatics are every bit as wild and funny as his mumak-surfing sequence in The Return of the King.
What with all the running to and fro, Martin Freeman isn’t center-screen so much in The Desolation of Smaug as he was in An Unexpected Journey, but he still manages to reinforce the impression that he’s the perfect man to play the befuddled-but-resourceful Mr. Baggins. He does show some character growth, rising to the occasion in unexpected ways even as he begins to experience intimations of the seductive evil of the Ring. Practical, down-to-earth Bilbo turns out to have more courage in one hairy toe than Thorin’s quarreling, treasure-seeking road company, and enough folklore savvy to know how best to talk to a dragon. His verbal sparring with Smaug makes for some of the most enjoyable moments in the movie, if not the most hyperkinetic.
All in all, I’m joining the critical consensus: Though it’s by no means entirely what Tolkien had in mind, The Desolation of Smaug is a far superior cinematic experience to the first installment of The Hobbit. It leaves Bilbo with more than one controversy-provoking bit of bling in his pockets, and the viewer eager to find out what happens next – even if, for the most part, we already know.