Peter Jackson’s Hobbit series continues to be a shadow of his triumphant Lord of the Rings saga, yet The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug still does one thing well, especially for fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s source novel. Just when the movie seems to be at its most plodding, it perks up to envision an element of Tolkien’s tale in a way that words could never capture.
One of these elements is right there in the title: Smaug. The enormous dragon stands at the center of Tolkien’s novel (which Jackson has divided into three parts). Our hero Bilbo (Martin Freeman) has been recruited by a band of dwarves to travel with them to the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug sits on the treasure he has gained by decimating nearby kingdoms. It falls upon Bilbo, the stealthy hobbit, to sneak into the lair and reclaim a particular gem.
It’s as if the treasure itself has grown teeth.
And so this second installment finally brings Smaug and Bilbo face to face. The beast arises from a mountainous pile of golden coins in a sequence that is at once terrifying and majestic; it’s as if the treasure itself has grown teeth. Smaug then engages Bilbo in something familiar to readers of Tolkien: a riddle-filled conversation. Benedict Cumberbatch provides the (significantly altered) voice for Smaug, and as he and Bilbo go back and forth he creates a villain – much like Andy Serkis’ Gollum – that is, above all else, insidious.
The movie has other, similarly thrilling moments, including the dwarves’ harrowing escape down a river while stuffed into barrels, with both angry elves and evil orcs in pursuit, and a confrontation between Gandalf (Ian McKellen, steady as ever) and the tale’s ultimate antagonist, Sauron (also voiced by Cumberbatch).
Will this be enough to carry you through a fairly familiar bout with giant spiders and a strained romance between a newly invented elf character (Evangeline Lilly) and a dwarf (Aidan Turner)? I suppose that depends on your tolerance for all things Tolkien. For me, The Desolation of Smaug works despite such touches, not because of them. A companion piece to the novel more than anything else, Smaug can’t quite count as a complete movie experience. At least we’ll always have The Lord of the Rings for that.