So much could be said about “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” it’s difficult to know where to begin.
But in that statement itself lies a point which shouldn’t go unsaid: “Smaug” is an epic movie so dense with story, artistry and effort it deserves praise purely as a filmmaking accomplishment.
The film clocks in at 161 minutes but, unlike “An Unexpected Journey,” it rarely drags.
Director Peter Jackson spent too much time at the beginning of the first film in the trilogy establishing Tolkien’s world and tying his Hobbit series to his Lord of the Rings series. With the world-building behind us, we can jump directly into the story this time.
After a brief flashback in which Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Thorin (Richard Armitage) hatch the plan to take back the Arkenstone, kill the dragon Smaug and restore Thorin’s kingdom, we rejoin Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf and the dwarves as they enter Mirkwood Forest and continue their quest.
This installment of the tale takes us to the lair of Wood-elves, to Lake-town, to the Lonely Mountain and finally into Dale, which is now Smaug’s lair. At each stage of the journey, Jackson adds more indelible characters to the franchise and treats us to an expertly done action sequence.
The film seamlessly blends live action and computer-generated imagery, moves at a breakneck pace and offers copious sight gags. If only all filmmakers tried as hard as Jackson to give the audience a memorable experience.
Jackson gives us plenty of controversy, too. In his effort to bring the entirety of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology onto the screen, Jackson and his co-screenwriters (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro) incorporate a lot of material extraneous to Tolkien’s book.
There has already been much online chatter about the presence of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), for instance. He doesn’t appear in the novel yet plays a significant role in this movie. Is he there because moviegoers favored the character in the Rings trilogy, or is he necessary to the story?
Perhaps even more controversial is the character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a female elf and love interest created for the film by Jackson and Walsh. Was she conceived for commercial reasons since Tolkien’s book doesn’t include a substantial female role or love story? Is she a way for Jackson to stretch the novel into three films?
Those are certainly fair criticisms, but moviegoers who give the character a chance will find Tauriel serves important purposes and is a worthy addition to the film.
However, these are just two of many prominent changes “Desolation of Smaug” makes to Tolkien’s story, and those revisions aren’t done for the sake of economy, which motivates most major adaptation changes.
It’s common for film adaptations of literature to conflate multiple characters into one, simplify backstories and omit or combine events, since screen time and literary time work so differently.
But Jackson is doing just the opposite, and it’s fair to ask if all of these expansions and additions actually improve the material, let alone pay homage to the creator of Middle Earth, without whom this fictional universe (and much of Jackson’s career) wouldn’t exist.
If considered completely separately from the book, though, “Desolation of Smaug” is a masterful work of cinematic art and possibly the best blockbuster of the year.
The question is whether Tolkien fans are able to do that. “The Hobbit” means so much to so many readers it may prove impossible to divorce the films from the emotional attachment people feel toward the book.
However, whether you love or hate the changes Jackson and his crew are making to Tolkien’s text, to deny that “Desolation of Smaug” is a momentous cinematic achievement says more about the critic than the film.
Debate the individual choices, yes, but give the film its proper due as the most ambitious, grand movie of the year and one of Jackson’s best Tolkien adaptations.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.