Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a vast improvement over 2012’s An Unexpected Journey. Sure, the latest foray into Middle Earth has its share of bloat, including meandering sub-plots that go into the weeds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s expansive universe. And for a movie that’s ostensibly for children, The Desolation of Smaug is shockingly violent, with one gleeful decapitation too many. Yet there is a narrative thrust here that’s lacking in the first Hobbit film, and Smaug is more menacing than anything in The Lords of the Rings trilogy.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the 12 dwarves he accompanies are still in the throes of their mission: led by the charismatic Thorin (Richard Armitage), the dwarves want to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and take back their fortune from Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), the demented dragon. They hit some snags along the way: a group of giant-ass spiders nearly captures the dwarves and Bilbo, then the elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) save them. The capture/escape cycle happens two more times before Bilbo finally makes his way into the mountain to deal with Smaug. Oh, and there are two concurrent sub-plots while this is happening: Tauriel falls in love with a dwarf, sorta, and Gandalf investigates the evil Necromancer (also Cumberbatch). Jackson cuts between these storylines, focusing primarily on how tough it is to take down a dragon (it’s hard).
Unlike An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug has several robust action sequences where Jackson combines actual stakes with broad physical comedy. The best one is in the middle, where the dwarves are stuck in barrels as they float down a river. They fight off orcs from their barrels, while Legolas and Tauriel fight along the riverside. The juxtaposition of complex moving parts and comedy is reminiscent of the Indiana Jones films in the best way possible: the actors play it straight while the violence only grows wackier. Jackson’s finest skill is how he imbues CGI creations with real-world physics — no other tent-pole filmmaker has a better sense of just how things should fall down — and here he applies that skill toward a set piece that’s already defined by nonstop kinetics. But for all its success, there’s a bloodthirsty quality to the action — especially from Legolas, who functions like a Terminator with swords — that dampens the overall sense of fun. Still, it’s the best Middle Earth action sequence since the one with the cave troll.
The other surprising thing about this sequel — especially given the different ambitions of the two trilogies — is the moral ambiguity that defines its characters. No one, not even Bilbo or Smaug, is entirely good or evil. Many of them are downright selfish, acting in their own self-interests until they finally submit to the greater good. The script, co-written by Jackson and three others, imagines a Middle Earth full of distrust and weary, suspicious characters. In Lake Town, where a plurality of the film takes place, the only somewhat decent guy is Bard (Luke Evans); he’s a bit like the Han Solo type, with the added complication that he has children.
But the most intriguing character is Thranduil (Lee Pace), the elf king who also happens to be Legolas’ father. Throughout The Desolation of Smaug, there is a debate between isolationism and interventionism, and Thranduil belongs firmly in the former camp. Depending on how it all plays out, I imagine there will be think-pieces on what these films tell us about foreign policy (admittedly, it’s been 20 years since I’ve read the book, but other critics note that Jackson and company take significant departures from the source material).
The moral complexity is still there, even when Smaug enters the picture. Jackson imagines him as a deeply unsettling creature: he’s constantly moving, everywhere at once it seems, and the creepiness does not end there. Smaug is intelligent — he sees through Bilbo’s ruse immediately — yet he’s also completely insane (I imagine dragons don’t socialize much). The dwarves imagine an inventive way to attack Smaug, with Armitage’s Thorin once again striking the perfect balance of courage and arrogance. Jackson allows a temporary moment of triumph, only to snatch it from Thorin with an excellent cliffhanger.
Unfortunately, I am not in a position to comment on how good this sequel looks. The image was blurry at the screening I attended — the theater staff understood this problem but did not bother to correct it — so all the gorgeous vistas has the crude appearance of a video game from 2007. I know Jackson filmed The Hobbit at 48 frames per second, double the typical standard, but all that work is immaterial when the theater fails at a basic level (even the subtitles were blurry). Despite that issue, The Desolation of Smaug is full of action and complex, flawed characters. Peter Jackson may be a nerd first and a filmmaker second, yet there’s a youthful excitement to here that’s been largely absent from Middle Earth.