The first entry in this bloated trilogy (more on that momentarily), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), served as an entertaining, if very uneven, prologue. With all the particulars out of the way, Desolation moves at an almost frantic, though uneven, pace. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is still journeys with Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) and The Company of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to enter the Lonely Mountain and reclaim their kingdom from the terrifying dragon, Smaug (a sublimely evil, motion-captured Benedict Cumberbatch). Along the way, Gandalf separates from the companions in order to investigate a familiar, growing evil and the troupe must overcome obstacles, including escaping imprisonment from wood elves, and skulking about the city of Lake-Town which lies at the edge of the Lonely Mountain, to attempt to regain the Arkenstone, which would cement Oakenshield’s claim to rule.
The film is sumptuous to look at. While the film's vision is distinctly Jackson’s, it is somewhat filtered through the unique lens of Guillermo Del Toro, who brought his Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy sensibilities to the film particularly in the setting of Lake-town (and quite possibly Erebor itself). Whereas the previous film returned to locations first seen in the original trilogy, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and conceptual designer (and noted Tolkien artist) Alan Lee, the world of Middle-Earth is expanded and feels like a real world in and of itself. The visuals do capture the mythological epic nature of Tolkien's fantasy world...
...that is, if Tolkien's world was fully represented.
Jackson's Tolkien-based films have always been a source of division among the fans of the source material, mostly due to his penchant for embellishing upon, or outright straying from, said works. Of all these films, The Desolation of Smaug may be the most divisive to date. Jackson’s additions not only give new motivations and angst for existing characters where originally there were none, he goes so far as to create a completely new and prominent new character that never existed in Tolkien’s books. Before 2001, one of the arguments against a film adaptation was the belief that the books were, as written, "unfilm-able". In order to make the original LOTR film trilogy, many liberties were taken to entertain and attract the non-Tolkien masses. Some of those changes were controversial, but on the whole, the essence of Tolkien's work, if not the details, remained relatively intact. In this film…not so much.
The question becomes how much does one change the source material before it becomes virtually divorced from it? For example, “The Hobbit” is presented from the point of view of Bilbo Baggins. However, in this film Bilbo is the focus for part of the first third and is practically invisible until it is time for him to enter Erebor. The problem with inserting material from corresponding tales from "The Silmarillion" and "Unfinished Tales" is that Bilbo is no longer the story’s focal point and, as such, is relegated to background. This lack of one cohesive protagonist confuses as well as diffuses the power of the film's narrative. It's not to say that the other characters are uninteresting. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. All of the actors acquit themselves rather well with on one performer being a standout (including newcomers Lee Pace, Luke Evans and Stephen Fry as “King Thandruil”, “Bard the Bowman” and “The Master of Lake-town”, respectively, among others). However, this film is titled The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug; one would expect to follow the events from that character’s point of view for the majority of the film.
Further, without going into spoiler-ish details, there are instances of scenes where Jackson contradicts the first trilogy, particularly where the elves are concerned. Then there's the problem of Evangeline Lilly's "Meredith"...er… "Tauriel", a character created by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. She exists because (since as far as I remember, there were no female characters in “The Hobbit”) modern day storytelling practically necessitates a female presence (which is not a chauvinistic judgment call, but merely a statement of fact). Her character is Middle-Earth's Katniss Everdeen; sure of bow, strong of character and stout of heart. Her presence, however pleasing to the eye or sympathetic to the viewer, is virtually unnecessary as she neither detracts nor adds to the proceedings. Due to studio decree, a romantic triangle was added after completion of principle photography in order to create a love triangle between her, Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reprising a character who, like Frodo Baggins, Galadriel and Saruman, was not in the book) and the dwarven Kili (a soulful Aidan Turner). This romance poses a problem in the fact that both the LOTR books and films establish that the first rekindling of peace between the dwarves and elves came about from the friendship forged between Legolas and Gimli (John Rhys Davis). However, the portions of Howard Shore's moving score that pertain to Tauriel hint that all may not end well for anyone involved in this triangle.
Nevertheless, her inclusion does add some added context for Legolas' behavior in the LOTR film trilogy but, again, it isn't a necessary addition to begin with.
Is this addition emotionally moving? Yes. Is it necessary? Perhaps for the film, if one were to take these films as their own separate entity from the books. And it has to be, for Peter Jackson takes liberties that changes not only whole climatic sequences in order to enhance dramatic effect, but completely changes the motivations of some characters to have them resonate to a 21st century audience. In many ways, he rewrites Tolkien (and not always for the better). As previously asserted in other reviews on this blog, changes deemed necessary for cinematic translation of literary works are acceptable so long as the filmmakers get the essence of the characters and story right. In many ways, this time Jackson doesn't. One of the most egregious (and most likely to incite ire amongst the purists) is during Bilbo's fateful confrontation with Smaug, practically changing the antagonist's character and thus transforming the entire dynamic of the scene. Unfortunately, it doesn't improve matters.
Despite the fact that in terms of pacing and action this film far surpasses its predecessor, it is filled with bloat. Some action sequences take far longer than required and it is painfully obvious that it is for the purpose of stretching the running time. On the whole, the film tries too hard to add gravitas to such an extent it almost calls attention to the fact that this film is mostly padding to get to The Hobbit: There and Back Again. Of all the films thus far, this may be the weakest of composer Howard Shore's offerings. His music is still powerfully evocative, but it is as uneven as the film itself. He eschews use of the dwarves' theme, so prominent in the previous film, favoring a recurring elvish motif that is not quite as distinct. The "One Ring" theme does present itself in this film, albeit in short bursts. In terms of music, this is Shore's Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.
Unfortunately, the CGI is also uneven. A sequence involving the dwarves escape from the elven kingdom is almost no better than an Xbox game. The main focus of the digital special effects must have been Smaug the Dragon, who is rendered so realistically he almost seems too real. Never has a dragon been so beautifully represented in terms of size, scope, and menace.
The film is extremely, though frustratingly, enjoyable; in some ways, more so than the first. However, it pales next to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which is generally considered to be the weakest entry of the previous trilogy. It also ends in a very visceral cliffhanger, making one very frustrated in having to wait an entire year for the finale.
Essentially, this film is a mixed bag. It tries too hard to have the same weight and import as The Lord of the Rings. For people who haven’t read the book(s), the inconsistent characterization might be overlooked and the ride enjoyed for what it is. For Tolkien purists, just roll with it. The film is based on the book(s), and should be taken for what it is…Tolkien-lite. Just remember going in that this is Peter Jackson's house; we're simply guests in it.