The Hobbit movies, technically a prequel trilogy to the original Lord of the Rings films, are something truly unique. The fact is they really didn’t have to be made. While The Lord of the Rings were a true movie event one doesn’t quite get that impression this time around. That is not to say that they are bad movies but something is clearly missing.
That being said, The Desolation of Smaug, the second in The Hobbit movies is a treat for the eyes and proves once again why Peter Jackson is the ideal curator for Tolkien cinema. Five movies in no one knows Middle-Earth better than Jackson and it shows in all the tiny details. This is truly familiar ground for him and he has the talent to move seamlessly within it, something few other filmmakers would be able to do.
The movie wastes no time with backstory and instantly dives back into the quest of Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves as they head toward The Lonely Mountain to face the dragon Smaug and reclaim their homeland. With three movies to tell their tale the audience has already gotten to know the characters well enough that there’s no need to redo introductions.
While on their journey Bilbo comes to learn the influence of the ring he now carries and goes on a journey toward becoming a hero rather than someone content to watch the world go on around him. From the moment he shows up on screen it is clear that we are dealing with a much braver, more ambitious Bilbo than in the first film. It is a good change and one not unwarranted given how much he has been through since we first met him.
It is clear that by the second movie things become a bit tricky. That is not surprising and probably has to do with the amount of material available in order to spread the films across three full movies. The Hobbit book itself is only about 300 pages and geared toward children. There isn’t all that much meat to it and it can be easily read in a day. It wasn’t until The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien beefed up the action and the stakes making those stories epic rather than simply standard children’s storytelling.
This meant that in order for Jackson to tell the story he wanted to tell across a trilogy of three hour movies he needed to pull from other sources than the main book including The Lord of the Rings appendices and The Silmarillion.
While it is a genius thing to do it means that most of the core material of the movie, the entire middle actually, is taken straight from material that only hardcore fans would recognize. In other instances Jackson simply made up new characters to fill in gaps in the plot. While the reasoning for it makes sense it very delicately walks the line of canonizing fan fiction.
Jackson’s need to pad out the film is never clearer than in the barrel chase about halfway through the movie. The book describes the scene in about a paragraph but Jackson spreads it out to almost a half hour with elves and orcs chasing after the dwarves in a scene that can only be described as a theme park waiting to happen. The idea of switching to first person for a portion of the scene works in theory but somehow makes the events less realistic. Middle Earth works best when it is done on a grand and sweeping scale.
It is clear that is where Jackson is the most comfortable at this point in his career as well. If the rest of the movie is somewhat choppy every single scene with Smaug in it is perfection. The sheer size of the beast is awe inspiring and Jackson has put a lot of effort into making him as scary as possible. Indeed, on the big screen the audience can make out every scale on the dragon’s body as his deep voice booms throughout the theater. Jackson allows for a slow reveal but once his entire form is shown on screen it is hard not to let your jaw drop. Like the Gollum scene in the first film, every time Bilbo interacts with Smaug is pure perfection.
Even though he’s not seen on screen for a single frame Smaug truly does belong to Benedict Cumberbatch. In the weirdest reunion ever, Martin Freeman once again finds himself working with his Sherlock co-star and the truth is both of them are perfect for their roles. Had it been simple stunt casting it would have been apparent from the start but both Freeman and Cumberbatch own their roles and Jackson made the right choice in casting them.
The Desolation of Smaug won’t be for everyone but it is still well worth watching and worth watching on the big screen. If the original Lord of the Rings movies were meant for everyone The Hobbit movies are sure to speak to a much more niche audience. The movies have the makings of classics but unlike their predecessors they are going to have to work for them.
Watch the trailer.