Superior to An Unexpected Journey in every conceivable way, the second installment in Peter Jackson’s fresher J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy addresses close to every complaint laid out about last year’s Hobbit kickoff. It’s not monotonous, needlessly rhetorical or extended at the sole behest of technical demands. But it’s worth noting just how the director, long an honorary citizen of Middle Earth, accomplished such positive results: by crafting a nearly three-hour “screw you” to the source material.
Before all you Elvish-speaking Tolkien scholars yank on your mithril chainmail and commence raining flaming arrows down upon your local cinema, remember — if you want to see The Hobbit on any screen that doesn’t exist inside your own brain, it has to be this way. Published in 1937, nearly 20 years before the launch of the The Lord of The Rings novels that inspired Jackson’s career-defining films, the kid-friendly book simply isn’t long, detailed or philosophically hearty enough to justify the creation of an entirely new set of nod-to-Tolkien movies.
Sure, the argument can be made that Jackson should’ve realized this and not made them at all, but come on — a world in which big-budget, CGI-packed popcorn flicks featuring Kate from LOST as a bow-armed babe elf is a world that ain’t that bad to live in. You simply can’t have this book and watch it, too, which is why fist-shaking purists should unclench and accept that literature and cinema have always been two very distinct experiences.
Continuing with the jolly caravan to nearly certain death that began in the first film, The Desolation of Smaug follows Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and a band of grumpy bearded little dudes led by noble mega-brooder Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) en route to the Lonely Mountain, the former kingdom of the dwarf king’s ancestors. Years back, the titular devious dragon — voiced by Freeman’s Sherlock costar Benedict Cumberbatch, whose talking works for most purposes — drove Thorin’s now-nearly-extinct civilization from the mountain, repurposing its caverns into a gigantic Barcalounger made of gold doubloons and sweet-ass cups. All big-footed Bilbo, recruited for his stealthiness, has to do is infiltrate the cavern and snag a special gem that will help Thorin claim his rightful throne once again. Before all that can happen, though, the merry band’s got to get there, a chunk of time Jackson populates with previously unassociated Tolkien characters, plus elements of his own creation.
Elf warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom) was never explicitly mentioned in The Hobbit, but he’s weaseled his pretty little blonde head into the proceedings here — of course he has, since he was one of the most popular characters in Jackson’s other films. Also new to the pointy-eared party is Tauriel (LOST‘s Evangeline Lilly), a spry new character created for this film who’s leaned on for multiple purposes — female-driven fight scenes, mainly, plus a romantic subplot involving dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) that adds a light interspecies wrinkle. Yes, we know, nerds — this wasn’t in the book. But who cares? If anything, the discernible differences between text and film can bolster our enjoyment of both as separate artistic entities.
More importantly, if Jackson chose absolute fealty to Tolkien’s original tome, there would be so many fewer opportunities to present pace-setting conflict, intrigue and action. In other words, it would be miserable to watch. Take in Bilbo’s highly embellished barrel-aided escape from the Elf Kingdom — for my Middle Earth money, the best action sequence since The Battle of Helm’s Deep in 2002’s The Two Towers — and tell me this would be a better movie without it.
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