The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug can best be summarized as a very good action movie but a very poor Tolkien adaptation. Proceed as you will.
This movie begins exactly where we left our dwarves, wizard, and hobbit at the end of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. They are running from the mountains to escape a huge company of orcs led by Azog the Defiler. They rush into the home of a strange skin-changer named Beorn who appears as a giant bear. He shelters them for the night and they escape, of a sort, into the forest of Mirkwood, where Gandalf the wizard leaves them to their own devices. There they are driven out of their wits by enchantment, attacked by spiders, and then captured by elves. All in all the dwarves are having a pretty tough day. They probably would have died if not for Bilbo (who was the only one with enough presence of mind to use his sword against the spiders).
This is the point where the new (non-book) character Tauriel is introduced. She fights alongside Legolas, the elf king’s son*, and is generally a really awesome warrior elf. (We’ll set aside her other “character development” for now. Patience, gentle reader! Believe me when I say there are plenty of opinions to be had.) At any rate, Bilbo saves them again, having them ride inside of barrels Niagara-Falls-style into the river and out of the elvish kingdom. Of course as they float along the orcs, showing impeccable timing and with a new leader to boot, pop out and start attacking them, but are in turn attacked by Legolas and Tauriel. Really, they should have let these two fight the entire War of the Ring and it would’ve been over in two days. The dwarves get away at last, and the orcs and elves go off screen for the time being.
Gandalf, meanwhile, is checking out the old ruins of Dol Guldur, where the Necromancer is hiding out, and discovers that said Necromancer is really Sauron, the Enemy of old, and he’s got a giant orc army, led by (who else?) Azog the Defiler.
Meanwhile, the dwarves and Bilbo stumble across a man with a barge who collects the barrels, and hire him to smuggle them across the lake into Laketown. He reluctantly agrees to help them, though draws the line at stealing weapons from the town, which they do anyway, and are discovered. Thorin uses the corrupt town Master’s greed and ego to convince the townspeople to help them and the dwarves leave with fresh supplies, heading toward the mountain, leaving behind a few, including Kili, who is injured.
The orcs catch up at this point, as do the elves, and there is much fighting in the town, though somehow only orcs manage to die and they go mostly unnoticed. Legolas chases them again, but Tauriel stays to tend to Kili. (I know, I know, I’m coming back to it!) In the meantime, Thorin and company reach the mountain and get inside. Bilbo goes to face the dragon alone, finally learning of his task in all of this: steal the famous Arkenstone, the heart of the mountain that gives Thorin the symbolic power to rule all the dwarves. He finds it, but he also finds a huge, sleeping dragon.
Bilbo exchanges pleasantries with Smaug, who eventually turns dragony on him and tries to eat him, so the dwarves to come to help Bilbo. They fight throughout the mountain and even try to bury the dragon in molten gold, but fail, and Smaug flies off toward Laketown to kill all the people. Screen fades to black, come back for the final installment!
Okay, so here’s the thing. This was a very good action movie. I went with a friend who hadn’t even seen An Unexpected Journey and with only a cursory summery of that movie she was able to follow this one and enjoy it. It’s well structured overall and has some good action sequences, as well as a good dose of comic relief. It suffers from a few things, though, and almost all of them are related to the additions and changes made in the adaptation.
I am completely okay with adaptations of books into movies. In fact, the original Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies was how I learned to separate movies from their adaptations and thoroughly enjoy the movies for what they are. Unfortunately, Desolation has some things that are frustrating to say the least.
The addition of Tauriel was one of the biggest changes, and one for which I was completely on board. Female warrior elf? Yes, please! I know she’s not in the book, but it’s good to have female characters. Tolkien has some awesome female characters in the mythos of Middle Earth (though they aren’t much in the main book trilogy) so it’s not unheard of to have one. But then… they made her a love interest. Not once, but twice. We’re told that Legolas has “feelings” for her, via his father the elf king, and then… well, then there’s that whole thing with Kili the dwarf. Why does the one female character have to be defined by her attractiveness so that it completely overshadows her awesome fighting warrior skills? It reduces her, and becomes a retread of Arwen’s beefed up role in the other movies. Can females in these movies only be warrior-who-is-in-love? Dull.
One scene in particular stands out, where she uses athelas (conveniently here, another “weed”) to heal Kili, because it is almost identical to Arwen healing Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring. From the line “Athelas? It’s a weed!” to her glowing as she says an enchantment to bind it, the movie is almost plagiarizing the earlier work, and for what purpose? Is this really just bad writing? And the scene was just a little too long and with a little too much…overtone, we’ll say. The audience in my theater giggled uncomfortably at that point.
I also thought the inclusion of Beorn was unnecessary. I might upset some Tolkienites over this, but as a huge fan of the books** I can see where he was probably included to appease fans upset of the omission of Tom Bombadill in the earlier films. In this, however, he’s on screen for only a few rushed minutes, and doesn’t further the plot in the least. They could have trimmed the entire section about him and simply had the dwarves run straight into Mirkwood. Instead the film throws yet another character at the audience. Yes, it was fun to see Beorn, but he wasn’t needed for the movie.
The best parts of this movie are where it rings most true to the books. Smaug is amazing. The animation is spectacular and he is well-spoken and thoroughly terrifying. He stole the whole show, in my opinion, even salvaging the strange incident when the dwarves try to bury him in molten gold. (Seriously, why did they think heat would hurt a dragon that’s got a forge in his gut?) He glistens with the gold before shaking it free and flying into the night.
The other part that I really appreciated was Bilbo’s response to the Ring as he used it. While unexplained in the book The Hobbit, this is of course the possessed One Ring of Sauron and it corrupts all who use it. Bilbo struggles with it, and it even calls to Smaug, who can sense another evil presence in his chamber. This is a nice touch, as it connects the movies in a very real way. Bilbo almost seems aware that something isn’t right, and he’s already lying about having it. It’s really interesting to see how someone responds when they don’t know what it is, unlike Frodo who treated it with near reverence, knowing its true nature. I’ll be curious to see how this develops for him in the next movie.
Overall, I really enjoyed it as a movie (setting aside the Tauriel-as-love-interest thing), and would definitely see it again, and highly recommend it if you want to see a good action fantasy movie. If you’re a devout Tolkienite, you’ll find yourself incredibly frustrated to say the least. Tread with caution and take several very large grains of salt before it begins.
*Y’know, I wondered for years why they didn’t make a big deal about Legolas being a prince, what with all the Orlando Bloom fever when the original trilogy was released. We’re getting it full force now, though.
**I have read the books at least a dozen times, plus all of the supplemental material… Began sneaking them from my mom’s shelf in middle school. This is a world that I know.