Tom Hanks stars as Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks.”
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” certainly satisfies as the second installment of director Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of “The Hobbit,” though the director’s deviations from J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is beginning to minimize some of the author’s themes.
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” opens with a brief flashback in which Gandalf the Grey convinces the Dwarf Thorin Oakenshield that he must find and claim the Arkenstone in order to unite the Dwarves. The ensuing scene takes place one year later, as the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, along with Oakenshield and a company of Dwarves, are being chased by Azog and his Orcs. The action picks up directly from the final moments of the first film, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
The company is on an epic quest to reach the Lonely Mountain and reclaim the lost Dwarf kingdom of Erebor. In this installment, Bilbo and the Dwarves meet the skin-changer Beorn, face giant spiders as they traverse Mirkwood and find themselves in the dungeons of the Wood-elves. Eventually, they reach Lake-town, situated in the shadow of Lonely Mountain, and prepare to face the greatest danger of their journey: Smaug, a merciless dragon who resides in Erebor.
With its epic storyline and well-developed characters, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is engrossing and compelling. Martin Freeman is exceptional as Bilbo. Freeman unobtrusively shows how Bilbo evolves, day by day, on his journey, as he grows more bold as he faces each successive challenge. Equally effective – though somewhat less visible in this installment – is Ian McKellen as Gandalf. McKellen always brings just the right blend of authority and impertinence to the Wizard.
Richard Armitage reprises his role as Thorin. Armitage manages to make Thorin seem honorable one moment and corrupt the next. At this point in the story, Thorin is driven by his desire to reclaim the Arkenstone. His covetousness is a tragic flaw – one Armitage manages to competently convey.
Other solid performances include Orlando Bloom as Legolas, Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman, Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-town and Mikael Persbrandt as Beorn. Less effective were Lee Pace as Thranduil and Ryan Gage as Alfrid. The latter is a character created by Jackson and evidently patterned after Tolkien’s own archetypal sycophant, Gríma Wormtongue. Gage is unsuccessfully mimicking Brad Dourif’s portrayal of Wormtongue in Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Pace’s Thranduil, meanwhile, is exaggeratedly vainglorious and falsehearted.
Aside from a few weak performances, however, the acting in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” ranges from respectable to impeccable. Likewise, Jackson’s trademark action sequences are seamless and exhilarating. The running battle during the barrel-riding scene is wild and breathtaking. Gandalf’s confrontation at Dol Guldur is equally electrifying.
And then there’s Smaug.
Smaug alone may be worth the price of admission. The scene in which Bilbo conducts his verbal sparring with the dragon is sensationally depicted. In an age of impressive CGI-dominated films, Jackson manages to take the digital medium to the next level delivering a fire-breathing, winged beast that is disarmingly vibrant and intense. Benedict Cumberbatch adds even more depth to the antagonist with his vocal performance, dished out with a glut of overconfidence and condescension befitting the kingdom-smashing Smaug the Magnificent.
Still, even with the stunning visuals, the dazzling cinematography, the unrivaled special effects and the marvelous set design (Lake-town is as fastidiously and lovingly conceived as Rivendell, though far more similar to a 19th century British port-of-call ), there is still something not quite right with “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”
Jackson’s deep affection for Tolkien’s creation is both a source of creative inspiration and an impediment to articulate storytelling. If Jackson had a similar amount of passion for, say, the Florida Botanical Gardens and wished to document it in a coffee table book, he would likely try to photograph each individual branch, blossom and leaf on the grounds. While his work would be considered comprehensive, it nevertheless might fail to convey the intrinsic beauty and diversity displayed amidst the broad pallet of trees, groundcover, shrubs and assorted cultivated flora.
In “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” Jackson has not only supplemented the narrative with bits and pieces found elsewhere in Tolkien’s works but he has also created characters, engineered events and implanted motivation within existing characters that does not always seem consistent with the source material. In particular, in a scene in Mirkwood, Jackson suggests Bilbo may already be yielding to the corrupting power of the One Ring, fighting foes in an effort to protect it and not the company of Dwarves.
In his effort to re-imagine “The Hobbit” as an expansive survey of Tolkien’s sprawling Middle Earth and calculated prequel to “The Lord of the Rings,” Jackson has lost sight of the book’s uplifting coming-of-age theme as well as its discreet assessment of heroism and warfare. Perhaps the latter will be more evident in the final installment, “The Hobbit: There and Back Again,” due for release on Dec. 17, 2014.
For now, let’s forgive Jackson for his overzealousness and accept “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” for what it is: one of the most impressive, entertaining fantasy films ever made.