Second ‘Hobbit’ film a thrilling improvement on the first

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Martin Freeman, left, and John Callen in a scene from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Mark Pokorny)

When watching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I at one point scribbled, BIG BIG BIG.

That, after all, is what writer-director Peter Jackson loves. He embraces the big setting, the elaborate landscape, the grandeur that came from watching huge stories played out on gigantic screens.

He did all of that in his Lord of the Rings movies, and in the first of his Hobbit films, and there is more of the same in Smaug, the second work in Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. If the story calls for an enormous dragon in a treasure room, then the room is going to seem to go on for miles, the heaps of gold will look mountainous and the dragon — the Smaug of the movie’s title — will rise like a leviathan from under the coins.

It is a spectacular bit of film in a movie that often feels grand. Even more important, it is an improvement on the first Hobbit, which often dragged as it established characters and set up the story of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his joining the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on a quest to reclaim the ancient dwarf kingdom that Smaug had devastated.

The first film took close to three hours to make clear that Bilbo had a heroic side. The second film continues in that vein — while conceding a key flaw in Bilbo’s character — but is much more of an action-adventure. The band of characters make their way to a confrontation with Smaug (given a menacing voice by Benedict Cumberbatch) — while the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) makes a separate journey for a battle of his own.

It is for the most part an edge-of-your-seat tale as Bilbo and his dwarf companions are beset by enemies and intermittently aided by the likes of Tauriel, a high-powered elf played by Evangeline Lilly. People who adhere to the J.R.R. Tolkien book on which the movies are based — and Lilly is one of those fans — have noted that Tauriel is not in Tolkien, and that Jackson has taken other liberties in his storytelling. But if creative license can be taken, this is a good one to take, especially for girls wondering where their place is in this saga. People who remember Lilly’s tough Kate on Lost should not be surprised to see how well she fights in this movie — or how she deals with gentler moments. Even her skin tones are noteworthy, making especially evident how Jackson has used color in the movie to make it look like a magnificently illustrated storybook.

Of course, Jackson is drawing on a lot of influences, not only in Tolkien but also other quest stories and classic Disney animation. But there are still times when Jackson is too much in love with his big moments, dragging them out longer than necessary. The Bilbo-Smaug scenes, while enjoyable at first, may eventually have you asking why Smaug doesn’t get on with it. And those of you expecting some kind of conclusion to the movie should change your expectations; this is more like The Empire Strikes Back, with a big cliffhanger at the end.

Still, it was tremendously satisfying, more so because the first Hobbit film so disappointed. This is the kind of movie that makes you want two things immediately: to see the next film (due in July), or to watch this one all over again.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com. including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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