‘Desolation of Smaug’ charming, intense

Dec. 16, 2013

Eleanor Skelton
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Star rating: 4/5

Middle Earth-costumed fans lined the hallways of theaters nationwide for the midnight premiere Dec. 13, anticipating “The Desolation of Smaug,” the sequel to last December’s “An Unexpected Journey.”

Although the second Hobbit film deviates from canon more than the first, the movie still delivers impressive visual storytelling.

Audiences who have seen the first film may be confused by the abrupt opening of “Desolation.” It opens with a flashback to Gandalf (Ian McKellen) finding Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his pack of dwarves in an inn, recommending a burglar for their journey before the first film’s plotline begins.

However, the opening does redeem itself by recalling Thorin’s acceptance of Bilbo (Martin Freeman) at the end of “Unexpected Journey,” where Thorin said, “You! You nearly got yourself killed. Did I not say that you would be a burden? That you would not survive in the wild? That you had no place amongst us? I have never been so wrong.”

The canon plotline continues with a chase scene in which Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves run from orcs and take refuge in Bjorn’s cabin before journeying into Mirkwood, the fastest way to the Lonely Mountain.

Tolkien purists should be pleased at the adaptation of the giant spiders in Mirkwood. Bilbo’s fight scene to free the dwarf band from sticky cocoons viscerally illuminates the original text.

Spiraling shots through the spider web-strung trees and the sudden appearance of several large arachnids trigger audiences’ childhood horror from this chapter of the book.

Adding Gandalf’s journey where he leaves Bilbo and the dwarves at the entrance to Mirkwood explores connections between “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.”

These extra scenes fill plot holes between the two film series that mostly die-hard fans who read Tolkien’s supplemental material and “The Silmarillion” would otherwise comprehend.

Peter Jackson’s placing Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) in the forefront of the wood elves keeping the captive dwarves at a stalemate in Mirkwood also creates a tighter mesh between the two sagas.

Toward the end of the film, Bilbo and Smaug’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) conversation within the dilapidating underground dwarf halls is executed almost flawlessly.

The CGI animation and actors’ interplay seamlessly illustrates the psychological tension and physical threat the dragon poses to Bilbo.

Yet other deviations from canon are distracting. Several extended fight scenes, such as the one between the dwarves and Smaug, may overemphasize action and exclude some of the contemplative mystique for which both the books and the previous films are well-loved.

For instance, most of the dwarves’ wandering in Mirkwood for three book chapters is reduced to a single scene that turns into the battle with giant spiders, which fails to capture the mental and physical disorientation the characters experience.

The forbidden forest sequence in “Snow White and the Huntsman” would almost be better depiction of Mirkwood.

The audience does not see the dwarves get entranced by a wood elf dinner and then captured – instead, Legolas and Tauriel discover them with the spiders.

Also, the dwarves’ extended interaction with Laketown villagers provides comic relief but somewhat distracts from the plotline.

“The Desolation of Smaug” is packed intensity and strong visualization of a classic book. It continues a solid integration into the film version of Tolkien’s world in keeping with “An Unexpected Journey.” The fan base is still primed for “There and Back Again,” set to release in 2014.