The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug review: Finding the heart behind the epic

In JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the author displays a curious knack for brushing over details that he fears would bore the reader. He admits as much multiple times in the book itself. Peter Jackson, the Lord of the Rings director who has turned the book into its own epic trilogy, aims to do just the opposite. His desire to flesh out the characters, expand the story and create more direct connections with the Rings trilogy has created a film series that is in danger of being longer than the book that inspired it.

This fact has wrought both cheers and jeers from longtime fans. The first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, managed the rare feat of being both overlong and uneventful. While some might complain the Rings movies are also bloated, they didn’t feel like three hours because stuff actually happened. Journey, on the other hand, was quite a slog, rarely justifying its formidable length.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, is, thankfully, a much more impressive and focused work than its predecessor, the main reason being that stuff actually happens. Cool stuff. It’s an adventurous, technically audacious blast. And then, of course, there’s the dragon. But we’ll get to that.

Desolation mercifully takes no time getting going, continuing the quest of the hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman), who accompanies a group of dwarves to take back their homeland in the lonely mountain, which has been overtaken by a greedy dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch). Within the first hour, the merry band is nearly eaten by spiders and imprisoned by elves. And to think, in Journey they had barely left the shire by this point.

The main reason this sequel works so well is that Jackson and company’s additions (the script was co-written by Guillermo del Toro, who was originally attached to direct the trilogy) to the relatively simple original story feel much more like genuine improvements rather than attempts to pad the length of three movies. The main addition comes in the form of the Mirkwood elves, who, unlike the elves from the first film, are a bit dangerous and unpredictable. Their leader, Thranduil (Lee Pace) offers to help the dwarves on their journey; with caveats, of course. He is joined, in the movie, by his son Legolas (a returning Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), a brand-new female elf character. Some fans cried foul over adding a character to the universe, but Tauriel is a fantastic addition to this male-dominant universe. The love triangle that develops between her, Legolas and the dwarf Kili feels like one that actually may have some teeth to it (depending on what they do with it in the next film).

The human character of Bard is also expanded for the better. Although he plays an important role in the book, his character is not given much depth. Here he’s given a family and a more active role in helping the dwarves along on their journey. In fact, the entire town of Esgaroth, the town that has been displaced by Smaug, is more fully realized here; thus we care about what happens to the people here.

One of the more contentious aspects of the first film was its attempt to tie more directly to the Rings trilogy, creating a subplot involving the wizards Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and their encounters with the dark necromancer (soon to be Sauron). Here, they make more sense; rather than Gandalf leaving for half the story, we actually get to see what he’s up to, which is kind of cool. Still, I feel these scenes detract too much from the main story, and strike me as unnecessary additions. They’re interesting, but not essential.

All complaints go away once Smaug the dragon shows up. He is truly an awe-inspiring creation, and is by far one of the greatest dragons to ever grace a screen. The incredible CGI combined with Cumberbatch’s fantastic voice lend an air of gravity and even regality to the dragon. He is, in every way, a triumph.

The movie is not, however, about a dragon, and Smaug thankfully doesn’t steal the movie from the true star of the show. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins is about as endearing and lovable as a main character as has ever come from a fantasy universe. Seeing this character grow over the course of these movies is a treat, and Bilbo himself is a more interesting and nuanced character than Frodo, the protagonist form the Rings films. Credit for that goes equally to Tolkien’s original story, Freeman’s soulful performance and Jackson’s additions.

Smaug is still too long; it certainly won’t win over non-fans of the franchise, and I’m not sure the filmmakers have justified making this story into three long movies. But, Jackson and friends seem to have found the true, beating heart of this packed epic; a simple hobbit who, since he can’t go home yet, is doing the best he can. And, if he finds some courage (and a certain ring) along the way, we’re all the better for it.