Warning! Massive spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk!
Well, it’s better than the first one. It’s pretty sad that a movie set in this universe has come down to that for a one-sentence review, but here we are. First though, my history with this franchise.
When I was about six years old my dad rented from the video store the 1977 Rankin/Bass animated Hobbit movie. Sometime afterwards I watched the Rankin/Bass Lord Of The Rings film as well, but I didn’t actually read Tolkien until the summer before the Peter Jackson Fellowship Of The Ring film was released. I borrowed a copy of The Hobbit from a college roommate and was instantly hooked on the world. After reading that book I bought a hardback edition of the complete Lord Of The Rings. I read the novels. I saw the Peter Jackson movies. In fact, I saw Fellowship Of The Ring five times in the theater in 2001/2002! I absolutely love Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings. If any of the movies are on TV I’ll sit down and watch the whole thing. That’s why Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies have, so far, been such a disappointment.
When it was announced that The Hobbit would be made into three massive Lord Of The Rings-length movies I knew the writing was on the wall. LOTR is a massive, detailed, dark work of writing. The Hobbit, which was written earlier is a quick, light read aimed at children. The Rankin/Bass cartoon movie is 90 minutes long and manages to convey all of the major events of the book. So why the need for what will wind up being a twelve-plus hour cinematic experience? The short answer is that it’ll make a lot more money for Warner Bros. that way.
Peter Jackson loves The Lord Of The Rings, that much is evident. The LOTR movies do a better job of staying close to the books (especially Fellowship) than probably any other film adaptation. There are some liberties taken, but with the exception of Faramir they’re fairly minor. The problem is that while Peter Jackson clearly has great reverence for LOTR, he doesn’t seem to have much at all for The Hobbit. It’s really best to think of Jackson’s Hobbit movies as his own prequel series to LOTR that is roughly, and at times only loosely, based on the novel “The Hobbit”. To be sure, some of the changes incorporate things that Tolkien wrote later, but Jackson has also fabricated characters and events completely.
It’s true that making a movie adaptation of The Hobbit after LOTR presents some challenges. Lord Of The Rings is dark and drawn out while the Hobbit is lighter and more kid-friendly. A straight adaptation might not have met the expectations of audiences familiar with the LOTR films but not the writings of Tolkien. The problem Jackson runs into with stuffing the Hobbit full of LOTR foreshadowing is that the films are tonally unbalanced. You have goofy scenes like the dwarves washing Bilbo’s dishes in the first Hobbit film alongside really dark and scary scenes like Gandalf’s confrontation with the Necromancer in Smaug.
I also wonder if Jackson felt compelled to add more LOTR scenes because there’s so much less at stake in The Hobbit. In LOTR the fate of the world rests upon Frodo and the fellowship while the Hobbit is really just a fairy tale about a band of dwarves out to reclaim their stolen treasure from a dragon. Nevertheless, I would much rather have seen an adaptation of The Hobbit that is at least as faithful as Jackson’s adaptation of LOTR and it makes me wonder if this might have been better if someone else had been chosen to direct it.
These movies feel bloated with unnecessary subplots and details. We don’t need Tauriel at all, much less her extremely unlikely love triangle. Legolas shouldn’t be here either. I think he’s partly in the movie because Jackson loves playing with the character, but mostly I think he’s there to help bring audiences back to the theater. The most cringe-inducing scene in the movie has Gloin showing Legolas a picture in a locket of his son Gimli. Give me a break! There’s also an unnecessary subplot about Bard being out of favor with the mayor of the lake town. While LOTR’s length was generally packed with relevant details and action and aided you in feeling the magnitude of the journey, the Hobbit movies just feel tedious and unnecessarily long.
Desolation Of Smaug also continues the use of silly and cartoonish action scenes that made the first Hobbit film so groan-inducing. In one part of the barrel riding scene a dwarf-filled barrel bounces around in pinball-like fashion killing several orcs. The end sequences with Smaug are ridiculous and seem there just to squeeze in more action and give the dwarves something heroic to do. The melting gold statue scene is just stupid.
But there are some good things about the film. The acting is top-notch. Martin Freeman is great as Bilbo and Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect for the voice of Smaug, though having these two share scenes together makes it hard not to think of Sherlock and John. Likewise Evangeline Lilly, despite portraying a character who shouldn’t be in this movie, is quite good. There are also, once again, many beautiful shots of the New Zealand countryside and mountains, and the dwarves are all quite good when they’re not being given cartoonish action scenes, particularly Richard Armitage. Unfortunately all of the good elements of the film are outweighed by the bad.
It will take years for it to happen, but I hope one day someone does make a faithful adaption of The Hobbit. Until then, we can only hope for vast improvement in the final film in this trilogy.