After delivering last year a meandering and at times exciting first chapter to his long adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” Peter Jackson charges full steam ahead with Chapter Two, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” It’s well paced, tightly edited film, featuring some of the best action sequences of the year.
And yes, the 3D-24 frames per second format (how the film was previewed to the media) is vastly superior to Jackson’s preferred 3D-48 frames per second. Whereas the latter format distances you from the film (a problem I had with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”) and actually makes it look fake, the 3D-24 fps draws you into a world that feels lived-in, real, organic. You never even notice that you are watching the film through special glasses. But buyer, beware: Warner Brothers is releasing the 3D-48 fps version in 740 theaters, so do your homework before you go out.
Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Welsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro take a big risk by starting Chapter 2 right at the beginning: to that first meeting between Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) that set the events of Chapter One and the rest of the saga in motion. Flash forward to the present: Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the fifteen dwarves are being chased by a group of orcs. They find shelter in the house of shapeshifter Beoun, a creature who hates orcs and dwarves alike.
Rest is brief since Bilbo and his companions must cross the dark forest of Milkwood to reach the Lonely Mountain, home of the dwarf kingdom. But Gandalf leaves them to their own fates as he goes out on an errand to confirm his suspicions that dark forces are beginning to gather elsewhere. Enter the first great action sequence of the film as Bilbo and the dwarves face a horde of some truly nasty giant spiders in the forest.
Out of the furnace and into the fire: as soon as they bump off these spiders with the aid of elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), they are taken prisoners by them (with Bilbo following close behind, camouflaged by that ominous golden ring on which he is relying more and more to get out of scratches). Bilbo soon rescues his companions and unleashes the film’s second greatest action sequence: a chase downriver in barrels as they and the elves fight off the orcs.
Our ragtag team soon arrives in the human enclave of Laketown, a place that once saw better days thanks to their commerce with the dwarves, now being ruled by a rather capricious overlord (played by an appropriately slimy Stephen Fry). After another fight with the orcs, and leaving some friends behind, they reach their destination: the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo is tasked with finding Thorin’s precious Arkenstone, a jewel that will lend him the authority to rule once again…as long as he doesn’t wake the dragon Smaug up (brought to vivid life by Benedict Cumberbatch’s digitally manipulated voice and the visual wizards of WETA).
While “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” felt too faithful to its primary source, in this entry Jackson has expanded Tolkien’s universe by creating new characters, incorporating some old ones into the plot that were never supposed to be there in the first place and interactions that would not have felt out of place in Tolkien’s work. That is the case of Tauriel who, at first glance, might seem like an excuse to attract a female audience to the film. And yet, thanks to Lilly’s spirited performance and the parallels the film accidentally draws to Eoryn, the heroine in the third part of “The Lord of the Rings” saga, Tauriel’s addition doesn’t feel gratuitous at all. Neither does her potential romantic interest towards dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) nor Legolas’ jealousy towards the same.
Even with these changes, Jackson still remains true to the spirit of Tolkien’s work. He is weaving an ambitious tapestry from the novels, stories, appendixes and footnotes Tolkien left behind. He is as obsessed as Tolkien was with the idea of world building. Jackson is, in a way, the Dungeon Master of this cinematic recreation, except that, instead of a couple of dices, a paper pad and a game board, he uses cameras, computers and editing suites to build this world. A world that feels vividly realized, populated by a cast of well-defined characters, all with unique personalities, all with a specific role to play. And there, in the center, stands Bilbo, an everyman caught in a world full of larger than life beings, a character caught in his own personal struggle between good and evil as he succumbs to the power of the One Ring. No matter how many detours the film takes, it always circles back to Bilbo, that remarkable character who, in Martin Freeman’s more than capable hands, embodies the spirit of Tolkien’s work.