Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans
Rated: PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
Peter Jackson continues his epic prequel trilogy with the new film “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” As in the previous installment, “An Unexpected Journey,” the story found in the book “The Hobbit” is used as a framework, and events alluded to but not described there are filled in using the author’s other works. Unfortunately, as he did in his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Jackson has given us a second installment with a number of things he and his partners made up rather than sticking to the source material. There’s still a lot to love, but Tolkien purists may well be better off staying home.
This middle installment moves the story along, but (of course) ends on a cliffhanger. The company of dwarves-plus-one-hobbit must make their way from the mountains they just escaped in the previous film through the dangerous Mirkwood forest, and from there to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain which was once the Dwarves’ home. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is much more adventurous and practical in this installment – and braver too, which serves him well when he comes face to face with the enormous dragon Smaug.
The film is packed wall-to-wall with battles and other action sequences – to the point that it starts to feel like Jackson’s padding to fill out the two-and-three-quarter-hours long runtime. The fight choreography and effects are spectacular as usual, but one can only watch dwarves fighting orcs so many times before it starts to get dull, with or without the addition of some elves.
Fans of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) will be pleased to see him in this film – his father, Thranduil (Lee Pace), is king of the wood elves living at the edge of Mirkwood. Along with Legolas we meet Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), an elf maiden created out of whole cloth to offer a love interest to not only Legolas but to one of the younger dwarves. It’s frustrating to see the soap opera theme of forbidden love wedged into a tale which otherwise is a straightforward adventure story, and for purists, every line she has will be nails on a chalkboard.
That aside, the film is fantastic. The special effects, especially those used to create Smaug, look amazing, even in the high-frame-rate 3D projection. His design brilliantly combines his forelegs with his wings, enabling him to move well both on the ground and in the air. He’s full of interesting details (for example, his enormous eyes have a nictitating membrane!), and his voice (Benedict Cumberbatch with some voice modulation) is wonderfully deep and slithery.
The acting, as in Jackson’s other Tolkien adaptations is by and large very good. Freeman continues to deliver as Bilbo, showing us how the hobbit gradually changes from a homebody to an adventurer. Ian McKellan is wonderful as ever in Gandalf’s shoes, as are the other actors. Lee Pace is fantastic as Thranduil, who is hard and inflexible as the trees his subjects inhabit.
If you enjoyed the first installment and aren’t a die-hard Tolkien purist, “The Desolation of Smaug” is definitely worth seeing. It’s not as strong a film on its own as the first “The Hobbit” installment was, and I’d recommend watching that one before heading out to see this. If you were livid about the elves at Helm’s Deep in Jackson’s “The Two Towers,” you may want to stay home.