Peter Jackson takes on the middle portion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” in last weekend’s top box office release, “The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug,” centering on the exploits of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he and his companions continue their quest to the Lonely Mountain.
The first installment of Jackson’s trilogy left off with Bilbo earning the trust of the dwarvish heir Thorin (Richard Armitage) after Bilbo risked himself to save Thorin, and the party of fifteen finally within sight of the Lonely Mountain. The second begins with a flashback to the first meeting of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Thorin. Gandalf urges Thorin to stop searching for his lost father and quest to assume his right as King of Erebor.
Back in the present, orcs, led by Azog, are continuing their pursuit the party through the wilderness. The thirteen Dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf take refuge in the house of Beorn the skinchanger. Delayed by Beorn in his bear form, the orcs are ordered to muster at a stronghold by some anonymous dark master. After learning that the Thorin is an enemy of the orcs, Beorn offers his help by giving the party ponies to ride and supplies to get them to Mirkwood.
At the border of Mirkwood, Gandalf leaves the party on the elvish trail, warning them not to leave it or the forest will cloud their minds. Without Gandalf’s guidance, Bilbo and the Dwarves soon lose their way. Bilbo shakes the effects of the forest long enough to climb a tree and look above the foliage to see which direction to go, but some large threat is heading in their direction.
When he returns to the forest floor, the other party members have been captured by giant spiders. Using the ring he found to become invisible, Bilbo finds that he can understand the spider’s language. He rescues the Dwarves, but more spiders come and only the intervention of the Woodelves saves the party, though now they are prisoners of the Elves.
The Elvish king, Thranduil (Lee Pace) offers Thorin a deal for their freedom, but Thorin refuses because of an earlier disagreement with the Elves. The Dwarves are thrown into cells, but Bilbo is still under the obfuscation of his ring and remains free. While imprisoned, Fili (Dean O’Gorman) strikes up a grudging friendship with the Elvish Captain Tauriel (Evangeline Lily).
Skulking around under the ring’s invisibility, Bilbo hatches a plan to rescue the Dwarves. Lifting the keys from the guards and instructing his companions to hide in barrels destined to be dropped in the river where they will return to Laketown.
Their passing is noticed both by the Elves and the Orcs, who proceed to fight each other while trying to apprehend the party. Escaping both Orcs and Elves, the Dwarves hire a barge to smuggle them into Laketown where they are eventually recognized for who they are and are given supplies and sent to finish their quest and recover the kingdom of Eredor from the dragon Smaug.
“Desolation of Smaug” is more action packed and altogether more entertaining than the first movie in the Hobbit trilogy. Much of that action, comes directly from the need to introduce characters that do not exist in the novel. Tauriel works fine as heroine and odd love interest for both Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Fili, but purists might not like her inclusion.
Peter Jackson does not need to apologize for attempting to broaden the appeal of Tolkien for a modern audience. Deviating from the original has made for a much darker film that fits better with the feel of “The Lord of the Rings” movies than “The Hobbit” novel.
Like the first film, however, “The Desolation of Smaug” suffers from the simple fact it is incomplete. The story ends so abruptly that it takes a while to accept that the credits are rolling. Still, the story up to that point is entertaining enough to make the whole thing worthwhile.