I, like many fans of the “Lord of the Rings” books and movies, was a little uneasy when director Peter Jackson announced he would be making “The Hobbit,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s prelude to the epic fantasy series, into three films. I enjoyed Part 1, “An Unexpected Journey,” though it didn’t quell my uneasiness about the rest of the series. I figured Part 2, “The Desolation of Smaug,” would involve a lot of mucking about in the forest of Mirkwood while we had Legolas and other characters who had no part in Tolkien’s children’s book forced onto the screen to fill time.
Boy, is it nice to be wrong sometimes. “The Desolation of Smaug” doesn’t stick as closely to the source material as “An Unexpected Journey” did, but that actually is for the better. It follows Bilbo Baggins and the company of dwarves from the forest of Mirkwood and their escape from the elves through Lake-town, where they publicly state their intentions to take back the Lonely Mountain from the dragon Smaug. They finally confront Smaug himself, the movie ending on a perfect cliffhanger that will make audiences beg for next year’s finale.
While the previous installment got bogged down trying to keep too true to the book’s whimsical style at times, “The Desolation of Smaug” keeps a consistent tone similar to that of the original “Lord of the Rings” movies. Gone are the song breaks and humorously grotesque Goblin Kings. Instead, we get giant hissing spiders, strong character development and a truly menacing dragon. The two-and-a-half-hour format felt forced in the first film, but the additional scenes in Part 2 feel much more natural.
And that is a relief, because there is a lot of added material. There’s more of Gandalf wondering around setting up the “Lord of the Rings” plot. In the canon of the series, his discoveries of the Necromancer’s true identity don’t make a ton of sense (for finding out the Nazgul had awakened in this movie, it’s a bit strange for him to seem so surprised by hearing the Nazgul were roaming about in “Fellowship”). The final confrontation between the dwarves and the dragon was created solely for the movie’s convenience, but it’s intense, engaging and provides the perfect build-up for the conclusion of the fight in the next film.
Then there’s Tauriel, the famously added Elf character (played by Evangeline Lilly of “Lost” fame), who is introduced to the cast to add a few extra subplots and a strong female character, something that’s rarely seen in Tolkien’s works. The character works well in the course of the movie, and the plot involving her and Legolas feels like it belongs in the larger scale of the story, not something that could be taken for granted heading in. The elves, as could be expected, are involved in most of the action battle scenes, with Orlando Bloom picking up right where he left off in the “Lord of the Rings” films doing impossible feats of awesomeness. The budding romance between Tauriel and one of the dwarves also comes across as very sweet and believable, a welcome recourse from the dark tones and violence of the rest of the movie.
The second film establishes well the goings-on in Laketown, far beyond what was given in the book. Readers are given a fair introduction to the town and its history, to the part the old city of Dale had played when Smaug first came, but it was mostly told as an afterthought to the dwarves’ actions there. In the film, we better see the corruption among the town’s leaders. We also become attached to Bard, the down-on-his-luck descendant of Dale’s old hero who failed to slay the dragon. We are introduced to his family and see that he is resourceful and knowledgeable, and his reluctance to just go with the flow of everyday miserable life in Lake-town make him a sympathetic and likeable character. The movie sets him up as a bargeman who shelters the dwarves and Bilbo as they enter into the town. Establishing him in this way is the best way to make him stand out when his moment comes in the third movie. The book doesn’t make him a character until after the events of the second film wrap up, which would never have worked on the screen.
In all, the film team made better decisions in translating the framework of “The Hobbit” into “The Desolation of Smaug.” It expands in more enjoyable ways on Tolkien’s story that harkens back to what made the original film trilogy great. The third movie, “There And Back Again,” set to come out next December, will heavily feature Smaug’s assault on Lake-town and the Battle of Five Armies, which will tie all of the wandering plot threads from the first two films together. Just how these events are paced out over the course of the likely three-hour movie will determine, ultimately, whether it was really worth it to turn the children’s book into an epic trilogy.