There will be some book to movie spoilers throughout this review. However, I will avoid specific spoilers as much as possible.
So that’s how you turn a single book into three movies.
The Desolation of Smaug turned out to be a rather fascinating movie from a reviewer’s perspective. The part of me that’s a sucker for a good adventure story (doubly so if it’s a high fantasy setting) came away very fulfilled and content. The part of me that’s a detail obsessed Tolkienite is still going, “Wait…what!?” I think beyond a doubt it had a bad case of middle installment pacing issues. In its rush to set up the grand finale of the trilogy, it often lost the nice touches of the first movie. As a whole, there were less character moments, though Bilbo got a few rushed ones, and a lot less world building. And some viewers I’m sure will be delighted to hear that.
For me though, what Jackson got really right with the first movie was the way he framed the quest for the Lonely Mountain in the larger picture of Middle-earth. He took advantage of the throw away comments from Gandalf in the book to explore the rising darkness paralleling these events. He brought elements of the well love world into stunning visuals that could easily have been cut for the sake of the plot, but that gave us so much more depth to the world it was hard to mind if they slowed things down a bit. The flashbacks to Erebor and Moria, the White Counsel, and even the policing of the Greenwood by Radagast were worth the time.
With Desolation of Smaug, there were moments that almost seemed to turn into Tolkien fanfic. Seriously, there’s been a real question among readers of the books since the inception of Middle-earth about Gandalf and Sauron that was just tossed into the movie randomly. And I found myself asking, “what right does Peter Jackson have to answer questions Tolkien himself admitted he didn’t know the answer to?” It’s one thing to build on the world. To have nice asides like, to my shock, Tauriel. But it’s another thing to go out of your way to try and assert that you know more about the world than its creator. And I think that was what bugged me most throughout this movie.
Like with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there were odd plot deviations that seemed illogical, character weakening, plot complicating, and completely unnecessary. I’m still horrified by what happened to one of my favorite characters, Faramir. Somehow we went from having a man who refuses to even contemplating taking the Ring, even says he wouldn’t pick it up if it were laying in the road, to someone who drags the hobbits back to Gondor. Why? What did it serve? I would have happily watched the attack on Osgiliath without the hobbits needing to be there. It didn’t change where they went from there or why. There was still plenty of ways for Gollum to triumph over Smeagol and lead them into a trap…why deliberately lessen a great character?
I felt that Jackson avoided this more or less with the first Hobbit movie. Now, it was back. After a completely faithful portrayal of Riddles in the Dark, he kept only the first few minutes of the Bilbo meeting Smaug and then went completely off the rails. Having Bilbo remove the Ring and not put it back on during all his attempts to escape the dragon and grab the Arkenstone only makes Bilbo look stupid. Really, really stupid. Right after we spent a movie and half on how Bilbo was actually pretty clever. Even if Jackson couldn’t pass up the chance to have Thorin confront Smaug himself, that could have been added later. Instead, one of the most memorable and well love scenes is majorly altered. And again, I ask why? And I’m not even going to touch Dol Guldur and the Necromancer.
Yet, it’s hard to find a balance when complaining about the changes in the movie when some of them were really good. I loved the moment when Bilbo realized that the Ring had an unnatural hold on him. I even like the new Captain of the Guard, Tauriel for most of the movie. Right up until a major Lord of the Rings homage that spoiled it. It’s really alright not to rehash every good visual of the first movies, people. By all means, have her perform healing magic. The athelas was a nice touch too. But beyond the fact that Silvan elves shouldn’t glowing, there’s no reason for Tauriel to be the new Arwen. Let her be a good character in her own right. I might have even liked her interactions with Kili if I didn’t know how the book ends. I refuse to willingly enter into heartbreak.
While I heard some complaining on the internet about how heavily the elves featured in the trailers for Desolation of Smaug, I’d say a really good balance was struck. The first movie was completely focused on the dwarves and Bilbo. Now we’re seeing all the different races getting caught up in action. And much like dwarves served as the comic relief in the Lord of the Rings, it’s the elves turn to bear the brunt of the laughter. Brilliantly over the top performances by Lee Pace and Orlando Bloom caused most of the humor and the barrel run which should have been gratuitous found an amazing balance between peril and mirth.
However, Martin Freeman still steals the show with a perfectly understated performance. Between a new found courage, a Ring, and a dragon, we begin to see why Bilbo was considered to be something of an atypical hobbit who never really managed to settle back down in the quiet Shire. Bilbo is irrevocably changed at this point as Gandalf points out, but not all of it comes from the growing power of the Ring. You can also see the wheels beginning to turn in regards to the Arkenstone thanks to a few nasty comments from Smaug.
So we’re back on familiar turf with the Hobbit. Much like Lord of the Rings, your enjoyment of the movie is directly tied into how much you can separate the film from the book. If you can let go of what “should have been,” you’ll find an amazing adventure that truly manages to capture all the magic of the first trilogy. Unlike An Unexpected Journey though, we have taken several large steps away from the source the material. I actively tried not to get my hopes up after the previous movie was so faithful, and that was a very good choice. My final verdict is that nothing is ever as epic as Tolkien material in the hands of Peter Jackson. However, I’m still hoping for the ridiculously faithful TV mini series.
4.5 out of 5 stars