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Director Peter Jackson retools the Hobbit story in The Desolation of Smaug
Tinkering with Tolkien
Dwarves barrel down a river to escape their foes.
Dwarves barrel down a river to escape their foes.

It's easy to confuse Peter Jackson's Hobbit films with his Lord of the Rings films. He seems to be counting on it.

That much was clear in An Unexpected Journey, the first part of his series based on J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved novel The Hobbit. Jackson took a lot of liberties, adding an extended prologue and familiar faces from The Lord of the Rings to establish a connection with his original trilogy. With The Desolation of Smaug, the second installment of The Hobbit, he's so determined to duplicate what worked before that he doesn't let the story develop its own identity.

Smaug picks up with a company of dwarves led by the exiled heir to the throne, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). The group also includes hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who are fleeing a band of orcs. Time is running out to reach a secret door to the Lonely Mountain, which was once the realm of the dwarves but is now ruled by the dragon Smaug. Here the dwarves must retrieve the Arkenstone, a gem Thorin needs to reclaim the throne. Achieving this goal seems less and less likely as the journey is delayed by forest spiders, the elves of Mirkwood and the human inhabitants of Laketown.

Jackson is brilliant at using geography in Smaug's action sequences. In the centerpiece sequence, Thorin's crew tries to escape the orcs and the Mirkwood elves by riding barrels down a river. The story never loses momentum as Jackson brings in creative new props and follows one dwarf who ricochets off the riverbanks like a pinball.

This sequence also gives lots of face time to Legolas (Orlando Bloom), a Lord of the Rings character who never explicitly appears in the pages of The Hobbit. It's fun to watch him dart across a battlefield, yet his addition feels forced. It also feels forced when Gandalf reminds us that Smaug's events are connected to events in The Lord of the Rings, which is set years in the future. When a new elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), is introduced, the problem isn't simply that she's not from the book, or that it's a bald-faced attempt to add a woman to a dude-heavy story. It's that Jackson's trying to create a romantic triangle involving Tauriel, Legolas and the handsome dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner). It's too similar to the Arwen-Aragorn-Eowyn dynamic in The Lord of the Rings.

The story eventually takes us into the Lonely Mountain, where Bilbo and the dwarves confront Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). This is a rare moment where Smaug feels like a movie version of The Hobbit, not a Lord of the Rings spinoff. While other parts of Smaug are exhausting, the mountain scenes are utterly satisfying.

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