Last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a joy to watch. I loved diving back into Peter Jackson’s re-creation of Middle Earth, rich as it was in the Lord of the Rings movies. An Unexpected Journey was fun, and while it lacked the depth and catharsis of the original trilogy, it made up for it with some incredible action sequences and a very rewatchable confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum. This year’s The Desolation of Smaug is an attempt to harness some of the weight of the Lord of the Rings movies, eschewing frivolity for melodrama and epic poetry. For the most part, this effort is successful.
Naturally, we have to compare this prequel to its prequel. An Unexpected Journey was overfilled with characters, and The Desolation of Smaug is no different. However, Desolation feels like its characters have more room to breathe within its story. Director Peter Jackson allows them time to develop delightfully ambiguous motives and to become more than just sketches. The dwarves are inching closer to their goal of reclaiming their mountain, thanks to help from both Gandalf the wizard (Sir Ian McKellen) and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) the hobbit. There are new characters, particularly a she-elf named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, in a role that fits her snugly), a reappearance by Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Thranduil (Lee Pace), an elvish king who also happens to be Legolas’s father. Men make their first appearance in the Hobbit movies when the dwarves arrive at the town of Laketown, prominently featuring a ferry-owner named Bard (Luke Evans) and the bumbling “Master” of the settlement (Stephen Fry).
After the frenetic pace of the last movie, I appreciated Jackson’s attempts to provide meaningful backstories for these new characters, as well as scenes that allowed for full conversations to take place. That was a nice change. There also seemed to be more at stake in this movie. A lot of this is because we finally meet Smaug, the terrible dragon that has been residing in the dwarves’ former residence. This may be the most successful sequence in the movies; on the screen, Smaug registers as a formidable and terrifying force of nature, both physically and psychologically. Jackson does a good job of making his monologue-ing confrontation with Bilbo show both Smaug’s cunning and his hubris.
So it’s safe to say that The Desolation of Smaug is an improvement on last year’s An Unexpected Journey. They’re both enjoyable, but Smaug has more success providing the audience with a substantial story. But how does Smaug stack up next to the Lord of the Rings movies? Well, it’s been a minute since I watched any of them, but considering I’ve seen them all about 23 times each, I think it’s safe to say I have a good, holistic understanding of the original trilogy. And, in my amateur opinion, Smaug is still a hobbit’s (or dwarf’s) length away from matching up to any of the first three movies.
It’s easy to remember the epic sweep of the Rings movies, but harder to forget the emotional effectiveness of the screenplay and the performances. J.R.R. Tolkien was a master storyteller, both in his trilogy and in its prequel. Jackson did a superb job of bringing to the screen some of Tolkien’s best themes: flawed people rising above corruption, finding heroism in unexpected places, having faith, the general thrust of good vs. evil. These Hobbit movies have been fun, and occasionally they seem to hearken back to the ambitious scope of Rings films. But by making three movies out of one book, essentially echoing his first effort, and by filling the gaps with more plot than character development, it seems like Peter Jackson has missed out on a golden opportunity to explore Tolkien’s themes on a more focused level. And so far, it’s damaging the quality of the new movies.