Written By: Dan Geer
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s epic Middle-Earth Trilogy, was a film that took its time in getting to the point. By taking its cues primarily from J.R.R. Tolkien’s 300+ page novel, and referencing The Lord of the Rings appendices and other various notes from the well-renowned author that tie in with The Hobbit, Jackson managed to stretch out the first third of the story into a nearly three-hour film.
While many found that this approach enriched various aspects of the story that weren’t described in elaborate detail in the book (or glossed over entirely), others found the film to be quite tedious to sit through, snobbishly proclaiming that Jackson is taking a tightly-written young adult novel and turning it into a over-bloated cash cow over the course of three long films. Of course, many of those criticisms stemmed from the fact that many had no idea that this trilogy is based on more than just The Hobbit, and/or don’t understand the fine tuning that needs to be done when translating a book to film. Nevertheless, for better or for worse, A Unexpected Journey indeed had a slower pace.
So those who were nodding off during the first film for this very reason may be happy to know that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug gets a move on with the story quite quickly, tossing us right into the action by picking up right where the first film left off, with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his company of dwarves on the run from Azog the Defiler and his goon-squad of orcs as they make their way toward The Lonely Mountain in hopes of fulfilling their quest to reclaim their dwarven homeland of Erebor and the treasures held captive within by the dragon Smaug.
However, In the first hour or so, we already get through a hefty chunk of what’s in the book, moving swiftly through the house of Beorn (a”skin-changing” man-bear), the spider-infested realm of Mirkwood, and the home of Thranduil (Lee Pace), the Elvenking from the first film that neglected to help the dwarves defend Erebor from Smaug. It isn’t until we reach Lake Town that the film takes a real breather and slows down a bit. While each scene in the first half of the film is wonderful in its own right, and succeeds in keeping our interest, at times the film seems to move too quickly. In particular, the meeting between Thorin’s Company and Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a pretty big part of the story from the book, seems more like a footnote in Peter Jackson’s telling of The Hobbit compared to other scenes.
Some may try and place the blame on Jackson for including material not from the novel, but this would be premature. For example, the book never tells us what Gandalf is up to when he leaves the Company at Mirkwood to attend to “some pressing business away south,” and vaguely references the rise of “The Necromancer” (briefly glimpsed in the first film). It was only later on in his life that Tolkien elaborated in his writings on Gandalf’s errand, revealing it to be incredibly important to not only The Hobbit, but also The Lord of the Rings. So while a main character like Gandalf disappearing for a while with little explanation might work just fine in book form, Jackson and the writers simply understand that you cannot do that on film – especially when we now know that Gandalf’s business is actually quite significant to everything going on. Gandalf’s side of the story has to be included here.
Placing importance on new characters may have been more of the culprit here. Sure, when the dwarves and Bilbo are captured by the elves of the Woodland Realm, we know from the book that there were many elves present. It only makes sense for the film to name a couple of them and give them things to do while on screen. Making Legolas (Orlando Bloom) one of them isn’t a problem, since he really is Thranduil’s son, and it is totally plausible that he would be present during the time of The Hobbit (plus, he’s a fan favorite). On the other hand, actress Evangeline Lily’s character, Tauriel, is a bit more complicated. The problem doesn’t lie with the writers making up a name for her, or that she gets some major screen time during a few incredible action sequences. In those aspects, she is actually one of the coolest characters in Middle Earth to not come from Tolkien, and I wanted more. The issue at hand has more to do with how focused the story is on her at times, developing one relationship in particular between her and another character that doesn’t seem to further the story any, and isn’t really all that interesting. Perhaps if this were cut out, we’d have more time for more material from the book!
Having said all that, The Desolation of Smaug is still very much the middle act of The Hobbit, generally staying on the same path the book takes, giving us one heck of a ride along the way – in some cases, literally, as is the case with the escape from the Woodland Realm down river with the dwarves and Bilbo. It was simply one of those types of action sequences that keeps building on itself to the point where you wonder how anything else in the film will top it. Of course, the answer to that dilemma is the introduction of Smaug, which was executed to absolute perfection. Benedict Cumberbatch gives just the right amount of presence to the character’s voice and movements, and Bilbo’s encounter with the dragon will definitely be talked about by Middle Earth junkies for years to come. It is the most intense scene in the film (and the book), and simply brilliant. In fact, all the main actors do a brilliant job making it easy for audiences to spend time with their characters and care about what happens to them, especially Armitage, Freeman, and McKellen, who completely own the roles given to them. All of their scenes demand our undivided attention.
So, in the end, while An Unexpected Journey may have felt to some like butter scraped over too much bread, at least the tighter editing of The Desolation of Smaug is sure to please critics of the first film. Personally, I prefer Jackson’s Middle Earth films take their time, and it seemed at times that this film could have done so a bit more. But the exhilarating action sequences, breathtaking visual effects, and the sense of urgency in the story are also responsible for moving the film along in a seemingly quicker manner, so it is not without good reason that the film concludes before it seems like it should. By the time we reach the end, with a massive cliffhanger at that, we’re left wanting more (which is good thing), and the film’s faults are revealed to be no more than minor nitpicks in the grand scheme of things. It really is quite an amazing second act to the story, and this reviewer cannot wait to see it all come to a head next year.