Much was made of director Peter Jackson's ambitious goal to adapt 's beloved children's book, The Hobbit, into a trilogy of films. Eyebrows were raised at the decision to stretch what was essentially a 300 page book across the span of three movies. With so many hours to fill, additions to the original story had to understandably be made. So first things first, if you are seeking a film adaptation that follows the exact contours of Tolkien's novel, then The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is not the film for you. But if you are alright with the plot deviating from course, then read on.
When first we return to the world of Middle Earth, it is not to rejoin Bilbo Baggins () and his stalwart band of dwarfs, but in a flashback scene that shows a not-so-chance encounter between Thorin Oakenshield () and Gandalf the Grey () at none other than the Prancing Pony Inn in Bree.
Afterward is where we quantum leap back into the present day, where Gandalf & co. are trapped between the pack of Orcs still hunting them, and an enormous bear-strosity. They start by fleeing, which is really what large portions of this movie are about: Fleeing from the Elves, fleeing from the Orcs, fleeing from the guards of Laketown, and, finally, fleeing the dragon Smaug, voiced by a vocally-digitized .
The Desolation of Smaug branches out tremendously from An Unexpected Journey, both in supporting characters and story lines, with more familiar faces returning, along with the introduction of brand-new major characters, including rebellious Silvan Elf Tauriel () and Bard the Bowman (), who is not quite who he seems at first appearance.
Of course, McKellen and step right back into their respective roles of Gandalf and Legolas with ease, and we welcome them with open arms. is truly sublime in the role of Bilbo, full of nervous little tics and fussy gestures that make the character, and the gradual strengthening of the effect the Ring has on him is developed skillfully throughout the film. We're allowed to see the changes wrought in him in small peeks, never enough for it to be over-the-top, but enough so that we know he is forever a different Hobbit, and not necessarily one for the better. And the Dwarfs are, as always, Dwarfs. Boisterous, noble, and loyal to the end, they are not nearly the prat-falling, slapsticky caricatures they were in the first film, which made me want to rejoice. Likewise, there is no absurdly cartoonish character like the Goblin King from An Unexpected Journey showing up to wrench you out of the story. A definite plus.
But there is a reason everyone wants to be an Elf, and it is never more evident than here. The Elves of Mirkwood running and leaping through the trees in pursuit of Orcs, particularly the fiery Tauriel, illustrate that the Silvan Elves are wild and athletic in a way their more tranquil brethren in Rivendell are not. There is no endless harp-playing here, only the deadly action of life-long hunters. Their speed, effortless grace, and insane reflexes illustrate just how badass the Elves are when they're on their game, none moreso than Legolas. This is not our calmer Elven archer from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but an younger, rougher version. He is a prince, the son of the Elvenking of Mirkwood, and it shows. He is all ruthless efficiency to Tauriel's more compassionate worldview and the deadpan humor that he flashed so frequently in the Lord of the Rings trilogy has not yet been developed here. He is all business, the son of the ruling king and charged with protecting the realm...though not always prone to following his father's wishes.
There is an epic fight/getaway scene involving the Dwarfs in barrels, hurtling down river rapids as the Elves battle with the Orcs on the banks beside them that will all but take your breath away. The sequence shows the true mastery Jackson has over the blending of choreography, special effects, and setting. Dwarfs, Elves, Orcs, and one frantic Hobbit all come together in a scene that is fantastic to watch, full of an even mix of humor and "Holy sh*t, did you see that??" moments.
This is not to say there aren't major issues with the film. A not particularly believable story line involving Tauriel and a male mismatch was obviously wedged in to check off the box next to "love story," making for some truly cringe-worthy moments and ham-fisted dialogue that were great for 15-year-old 'shippers, but bad for anyone with a brain. The editing and pacing were also a bit off, making a run time of 161 minutes seem far longer. Just as in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, we find our band of companions splitting up to pursue their own missions in simultaneous story lines, but the results weren't quite as seamless as the original trilogy, with a few cut scenes that were jarring in contrast with one another.
Perhaps it's because it doesn't quite have the same shine as Lord of the Rings - we have, after all, seen this world before. Perhaps it's simply because the stubborn, relatively one-dimensional Thorin isn't the sympathetic, fully realized character that Aragorn was. Or perhaps it's simply the side-effect of having to shove too much plot into a story that was never meant to have it, but something about the Hobbit trilogy, thus far, feels a bit flat and without heart. It's a bit too paint-by-numbers, and whether the onus is on or interference from New Line, you can almost feel the various checkboxes being ticked off as the film goes along.
Still, it's a solid film, visually stunning (of course), with some fine acting and incredible action sequences and special effects that pop the eyeballs and leave you on the edge of your seat. For all that, it can be forgiven its formulaic transgressions and claim the title as the best of the Hobbit films...so far.