4/5 stars

Peter Jackson’s second installment in the The Hobbit films will satisfy everyone from longtime fans of the series to casual holiday moviegoers. Extravagant special effects, engaging (although sometimes over-the-top) action scenes and fast-paced plot development characterize The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and make it an entertaining sequel.

In all five of his Lord of the Rings movies, Jackson faces the unique challenge of staying faithful to J.R.R. Tolkien’s carefully crafted plotlines and themes, while providing a movie product that can attract a wider audience beyond just those fantasy fans who have read every word of Tolkien’s works. Much of the criticism Jackson has received for the films would seem arcane, irrelevant or unfair to all but the most devoted fans. Careful viewers of the original trilogy noted additional romances, along with more subtle modifications, such as changing which armies took part in a battle.

In The Desolation of Smaug, Jackson adapts the book with two goals in mind: to make the movie attractive to a wider audience and to illustrate the connection between the events of The Hobbit and those of The Lord of the Rings. We are introduced to Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), an entirely new character and the movie’s leading female persona. While one of the main storylines does center on her complicated romance and love triangle with Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and a dwarf, Jackson deserves some credit for making Tauriel more than a one-dimensional love interest. She plays a huge role in saving the dwarves from an army of orcs by going directly against the orders of her king.

Jackson makes one other major change to the book: providing a backstory for Sauron (BenedictCumberbatch), the dark lord of Mordor and antagonist of the original movies. Unlike Tauriel, however, Jackson bases this backstory on information provided by Tolkien in his appendices and other works. In the book, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) plays a relatively small role. Due to the Sauron storyline, Gandalf receives much more screen time than he otherwise would, a change that ensures viewers see more of a familiar character. This change has a noticeable effect: Though The Hobbit was written as a children’s book, the movie version ends up much darker and has a more serious tone.

This film, as viewers of the previous installments should expect, incorporates cutting-edge special effects with fast-paced action that has moviegoers constantly on the edge of their seats. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves are constantly escaping imminent danger through the most improbable of sword thrusts, arrow shots and axe throws. Somehow, with the help of two elves, the group floats down a river in barrels and escapes unscathed from a horde of orcs in the most exciting scene of the movie.

We are finally introduced to Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), the dragon and main villain of the movie. From his resting place on top of the dwarves’ riches, the ornery dragon is a menacing and well-created obstacle. However, viewers will have to wait until the third installment to see the epic battle between the dwarves, orcs, dragon and other miscellaneous characters.

At times, The Desolation of Smaug felt rushed. The dwarves and hobbit would move from crisis to crisis with little to no break. Because of this, it is often difficult to get to know the characters, with many being reduced to static, one-dimensional figures. Viewers don’t get to learn much about aboutBeorn (Mikael Persbrandt) the skin-changer, Thorin’s (Richard Armitage) history or whoRadagast (Sylverster McCoy) is and what Gandalf wants from him.

Overall, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an entertaining and largely faithful adaptation of The Hobbit. The constant action excites the audience, and many of the changes help our understanding of the events of the original Lord of the Rings movies. Less light-hearted and more intense than the firstHobbit, this movie will leave viewers eagerly anticipating the third and final installment.

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