After the disappointing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, director Peter Jackson has found his way back to ruling in Middle-earth with the sequel, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Unexpected Journey gave us the comfort food of familiar locales, but the story lacked urgency. Desolation of Smaug reveals that while Unexpected Journey may have been a somewhat tedious set-up, the payoff is a fleet-footed, thrilling second chapter that confidently expands the world instead of creeping around the one Jackson previously created in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) are continuing to help dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves to reclaim their home of Erebor, which has been taken over by the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). An ill omen beckons Gandalf to leave the party and investigate the threat of a mysterious Necromancer, so without their wizard, Bilbo and the dwarves must make their way through the dark forests of Mirkwood, through an Elvish stronghold, and across the humble Lake-town. Along the way, they encounter Legolas (Orlando Bloom), fellow Elven warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the coldhearted Elvenking, Thranduil (Lee Pace), and the bland-but-technically-heroic Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). Meanwhile, war is brewing as the orcs, led by Thorin’s nemesis Azog, plan to overrun the lands and bring destruction to Middle-earth.
There’s a lot happening in Desolation of Smaug, but it all helps to broaden Middle-earth in a way Unexpected Journey never did. Unexpected Journey is passable enough, but it was never going anywhere particularly new or interesting. The goblin caves looked liked the Uruk-hai dwellings but with more wooden bridges. The forests were unremarkable. At one point they were climbing on stone giants for no particular reason. By comparison, Mirkwood and Lake-town have their own personalities, and more importantly, people talk about other places in Middle-earth. Jackson is showing and telling, and it makes the world feel lived in, but in a different way than Lord of the Rings.
Unexpected Journey (and I know it sounds like I’m going to keep trashing on a movie I didn’t find all that bad) had the unintended side effect of lowering expectations, so Desolation almost feels like a fresh start and we don’t have to hold it up to The Lord of the Rings. The middle chapter of The Hobbit trilogy is a separate beast, and can, to an extent, play on its own terms. We know to accept that most of the dwarves will remain indistinct (I challenge casual moviegoers to separate Dori, Nori, and Ori), but the group has more personality and they go slightly beyond being Bilbo’s backup players. The script remembers that even though Bilbo is crucial to the quest, these characters were recruited by Thorin Oakenshield, and in some respects, this is really his story.
The movie opens with a prologue focusing on Thorin’s first meeting with Gandalf, and it not only helps realign the story a bit, but it also further highlights the strength of Armitage’s performance. If there’s going to be a breakthrough star from this trilogy, it will be him. Thorin has a dragon-sized chip on his shoulder, and Armitage plays the character with a captivating mix of anger, self-righteousness, fear, and a bit of insanity. He’s like a dark version of Aragorn: a dethroned king craving his birthright and willing to sacrifice others to reclaim it rather than someone who must reluctantly take up the mantle and be a leader.
As for the new additions, Smaug and Bard are somewhat unremarkable. Evans, despite appearing in a slew of blockbusters, isn’t a particularly memorable actor. He’s handsome, but there’s never any joy or distinction to his performances. He’s grim-faced and most of his personality comes from his rugged facial hair. Bard is a de facto hero, but comes off as nothing more than a plot device.
But Smaug is a baffling letdown. He’s got a charismatic actor for the voice and an impressive physical design, but he never quite comes alive. Jackson nailed the battle of wits between Gollum and Bilbo in Unexpected Journey, but there’s no chemistry between the hobbit and the dragon (which is somewhat surprising when you consider Freeman and Cumberbatch play off each other wonderfully on Sherlock). Smaug does a lot of talking, and Bilbo does a lot of scrambling. Most of Smaug’s dialogue boils down to, “Let me keep telling you how awesome I am and how everyone else sucks,” and it gets old quickly. He’s far more effective as a flying, fire-breathing, stampeding set piece.
When it comes to the new characters, the biggest success is Tauriel. Because the writers created her from scratch, I was worried she would be the token female, but Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have given her more to do than just massacre orcs. She strikes up an emotional bond with Kili (Aidan Turner), has to make tough choices between following her conscience and going off to fight orcs, and I’m interested to see where she goes in the final film. She also helps to temper a much wilder and angrier Legolas.
Bloom clearly relishes stepping back into his famous role, and Jackson enjoys giving the character new ways to slaughter his foes to the point where the action goes absolutely wild. Because the story lacks the stakes of “Save the world from ultimate evil,” there’s really no reason to use Legolas’ actions as a quick breather from the horrors of war. He’s a pure shot of adrenaline, and he may as well have a kill-combo counter above his head. Desolation of Smaug shows that if you’re going to turn parts of your movie into a video game, make sure it’s a damn fun one. There’s also a tremendous action scene near the end, and while I won’t spoil it, the scene illustrates how Jackson has effectively built on Tolkien’s novel.
As a side note, I feel like this is an opportunity to apologize for and better articulate the comments I wrote about Tolkien’s writing in my An Unexpected Journey review. Tolkien was talented in terms of world-building. He also created memorable characters, and there are some absolutely riveting moments in his books like the “Riddles in the Dark” between Bilbo and Gollum, and the breathless escape from Shelob in The Two Towers. But I also find that Tolkien’s over-descriptive prose and occasional detours can make his novels a slog. So is he a bad writer? No, but I think The Lord of the Rings movies were an effective and efficient adaptation, and The Desolation of Smaug shows that it’s possible to make worthwhile additions.
There are several reasons why The Hobbit Trilogy will never be as good as Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, and Unexpected Journey stumbled out the door to the point where it almost felt like these new movies were a misguided effort at best and a cynical cash-grab at worst. When the middle chapter was announced shortly before Unexpected Journey was released, the unplanned addition seemed like it would be burdening an already-stretched narrative. While there are still some glaring flaws, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug shows Jackson has accepted that although he can’t go home again, he can still ignite an exciting adventure.