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Fans of J.R.R. Tokien’s classic work, The Hobbit, have been up in arms about director Peter Jackson’s second film in a film trilogy based on the book. Rumors of the changes Jackson made to the source story didn’t do justice to the degree of “tweaks” he actually made. In reality, Jackson ignores much of Tolkien’s original tale, yet manages to invent more material than he omits in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
No, Jackson’s second Hobbit film is not a retelling of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The only question that then remains is whether or not Jackson’s Desolation (aptly named for Tolkien fans) is worth watching for viewers who are able to approach this picture as a new, completely separate story.
Though inundated with the violence that only seems to increase with each Jackson movie, little other negative content and strong positive themes that condemn multiple forms of evil mean that audiences of this film may be disappointed, but not likely desolated.
The journey to reclaim the throne “under the mountain” for dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield continues, getting no easier as Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit burglar, and Thorin’s dwarf kin tromp through the wilderness to reach their destination. Their travels are made all the harder by the knowledge that the Lonely Mountain they are trying to reach houses the fierce dragon Smaug.
Before they can think about Smaug, however, the travelers must evade the troop of Orcs who are hunting them down. Fleeing to the home of an unpredictable and frightening host, the dwarves, with the help of the wizard Gandalf the Grey, get a momentary reprieve from the Orcs.
But time is running short to reach the Lonely Mountain in time to see the “last light of Durin’s Day” reveal the keyhole to a gate that leads to Thorin’s kingdom. The only way the dwarves and Bilbo will reach the Lonely Mountain fast enough is to cut through the forest of Mirkwood. Once peaceful, Mirkwood has turned dark and evil in recent days, making travel through its shadowed territory treacherous.
The dwarves, Gandalf assures them, have no other choice. When Gandalf is suddenly called away to investigate the source of the growing evil, the dwarves are left on their own to face the dangers of Mirkwood. The trials they encounter there are only the beginning of the obstacles in the travelers’ way. The journey will lead them to many foes and some unexpected friends as they learn about themselves, find their courage, and risk their lives to fight evil.
Can special effects make a movie? The mostly fabricated world of Desolation is so awesomely real and the special effects are the greatest strength of the picture, thus making one wonder if jaw-dropping effects are enough to make a film great. Jackson knows how to shoot action well, particularly with the advantage of digital effects to boost the excitement. Using these tools, Jackson skillfully conceptualizes fast action scenes and drops in more battle sequences than one might find in a World War.
These scenes are also where nearly all of the film’s negative content piles up…mostly in the form of rolling heads. There are at least five beheadings in Desolation, all of which are done to Orcs and are strangely bloodless. One, however, features a body that twitches for a while after the head is removed. Other beheadings show the head quite clearly as, and after, it is severed from the body.
Other battle violence includes the usual stabbings, punches, and kicks, but is punctuated by an arrow goring two heads at once and an Orc getting pinned to a suspended log with a sharp object. Only one of the violent acts (the beheading of the Orc whose body twitches afterward) is at all condemned. In that case, a king who had promised to free the Orc instead abruptly slays him, but is questioned for his actions by his adult son. The other killings are in self-defense in battles, but are still more graphic than necessary and even invite the audience to internally applaud or enjoy such acts.
To the filmmakers’ credit, however, violence is nearly the only morally harmful content in Desolation. Completely free of offensive language, Desolation only suffers from one or two bathroom humor jokes and a surprisingly sexual comment (surprising, since sexual innuendo has previously been absent in Jackson’s Tolkien-based films). This moment is intended to amuse, but is decidedly inappropriate, not to mention unrealistic for the characters and context.
Despite the frequency and quantity of Desolation’s battle action, the film’s pacing suffers. Intriguing and exciting for the first portion of the story (after a confusing scene that predates the entire Hobbit story, that is), Desolation lets viewers drift later on and even risks boredom by indulging in several scenes that feature long-winded villain speeches. As a result, the film has a yo-yo effect that loses the tension built in exciting sequences by interrupting with scenes that desperately need a trim.
Jackson clearly enjoys his subject and is having fun making these movies, but, thus far, The Hobbit movies illustrate the dangers of giving one person too much creative freedom. The firm hand of an editor who’s unafraid to cut great-looking, but unnecessary material is much needed in Desolation. For example, the film begins with a non-Tolkien scene that adds nothing essential or anything to enhance the rest of the tale, other than length. Three long films wouldn’t be necessary to tell the story of one novel if the techniques of tight filmmaking were more respected.
That said, many viewers might so appreciate the visual beauty and skill of this picture, that they won’t mind Jackson taking his time. In addition, a gifted cast delivers solid performances that convince and entertain even when the script makes the characters inconsistent or one-dimensional.
The screenplays of The Hobbit movies are not particularly nuanced or thematically complex, but Desolation offers more depth than the first Hobbit installment. A few of the characters—Thorin and some new faces in this film—are given the chance to develop and be shaped by what they encounter. Through these characters and their actions, several themes emerge that are resoundingly positive. An exploration of the power and dangers of greed takes center-stage, while the importance of courage, sacrifice, and a condemnation of all evil also emerge.
So is Desolation a complete, well, desolation of The Hobbit? For fans of Tolkien’s work who value close adherence to the original tale, desolation might not be an overstatement. Most other viewers, however, may find enough excitement and visual effects to warrant paying for the excuse to eat movie popcorn.
People who are concerned about becoming desensitized to violence should stay away, but viewers who are determined to watch because The Hobbit is the prequel to The Lord of the Rings should be warned. Yes, there are a few glorious moments from the book that Jackson brings to life in this film, but the majority of the movie will be spent in Jackson’s world telling his story, which is only remotely reminiscent of Tolkien’s.
There are likely many Jackson fans who like the sound of that. If you’re among them, sit back with your tub of popcorn and just try not to notice that Legolas (yes, he’s now in The Hobbit) looks older than his supposedly younger self in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. After all, Desolation is just a movie and if not for the knowledge of the greatness that could have been achieved and the threat of overwhelming boredom, this film could be a fun one to see.
Check out these movies instead:
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New Line Cinema, 2001)
Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (Lucasfilm, 1977)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)
For more ideas, visit our What to Watch page!