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The biggest release of the month will arguably be Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (PG-13), the second of a three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 novel. Early reviews are already lauding its praises, calling it a “vast improvement” on the lucrative first installment, which, despite a few entertaining scenes, was a snooze. That didn’t seem to inhibit box office receipts for the 2012 film, which were over $1 billion worldwide.
Unlike its plodding predecessor, The Desolation of Smaug jumps right into the story, following the dwarf party as they seek refuge from the orcs with Beorn the skin-changer. The quest keeps on at a good clip until the dwarves are snagged by a monstrous batch of spiders and imprisoned by the isolationist elf of Mirkwood, King Thranduil.
At this point, Jackson’s plot gets entangled with an elfish love triangle between Legolas (a slightly older, but dashing as ever, Orlando Bloom), Tauriel, an orc-slaying She-elf of Jackson’s imagining (Evangeline Lilly), and a diminutive Aiden Turner as Kili the Dwarf.
Thankfully, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) comes to the rescue and saves everyone from a Middle Earth–induced doze, launching one of the most entertaining and humorous scenes in the film involving barrels, dwarves, a smorgasbord of hideous orcs, and a dollop of elfish mojo. This is Jackson-action-fare at its best, and for a few moments he manages to capture the winsome humor of Tolkien’s tale.
Written as a children’s story, the book focuses not only on Bilbo’s deeds of derring-do, but on his growth from a safety-loving hobbit to a brave figure of legendary renown. The book is filled with original, species-specific poetry and just enough bad guys to be frightening but not terrifying.
Unfortunately, in Jackson’s effort to capitalize on the oodles of money available in another Tolkien franchise, he lopped off much of the droll humor and childlike innocence of the original and added more Mordor darkness than necessary. This doesn’t ruin the movie, which is definitely entertaining, but it does transmogrify Tolkien’s original intent and moves the prime age of the audience from childhood to early adulthood.
It comes as no surprise then, that the diverting charm of the dwarves barrel-rolling escape from Mirkwood is lost in the icy, grey mist of Lake-town, where the travelers find themselves in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain. The next sequence covering the dwarves’ interaction with Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), their grand send-off from Stephen Fry’s Master of Lake-town (who has a couple of sly political one-liners), and their entrance to the mountain could have been cut in half.
Truth be told, what everyone is waiting with bated breath for is the great, the terrible, the most fantastically created computer-generated dragon of the 21st century—SMAUG! And he is no disappointment.
Voiced with a masterful blend of seductive evil by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is everything a treasure-hungry dragon should be: vain, terrifyingly beautiful, and malicious down to the last glittering scale. According to some, he is the highlight of the overly long movie. It’s hard to disagree.
Smaug’s villainous cunning and serpentine sparkle overtake the final sequences of the film, leaving everyone feeling the burn of his breath and their sore muscles as they exit the theater to wait another year for the final installment of the franchise.
In the meantime, I’ll be reading the book to my kids, watching as they hear the story for the first time of a home-loving hobbit who becomes a hero and the adventures he has going there and back again. That will truly be epic.
Listen to Christina Darnell’s interview with Devin Brown, author of The Christian World of the Hobbit and Hobbit Lessons: A Map for Life's Unexpected Journeys, on The World and Everything in It: