Film Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Peter Jackson breathes a little fire back into Middle Earth.

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug | B

Let’s take a step back for a moment. When considering Peter Jackson’s screen adaptation of the beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy there is much to admire about its execution. Not only did Jackson have the savvy to gradually open up Tolkein’s sprawling scope and seemingly endless roster of characters so that audiences could, for the most part, keep up with what was happening, but he constructed each movie as a stand-alone entity. Though filled with episodic incident, The Fellowship of the Ring did a remarkable job of establishing its fantastical environs while investing in the emotional relationships of Frodo, Sam, and the rest of the company. The Two Towers shifted the focus from the micro to the macro, and gave us a larger worldview of Middle Earth while building on the narrative and emotional hooks implanted in the previous film. As the curtain closed on each film, there was a feeling of both closure and anticipation for what would happen next. The final chapter, The Return of the King, deftly tied the myriad plot and character threads together and, though it probably would have benefited from two or three fewer endings, offered a highly satisfying conclusion.

Now consider The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first in Jackson’s new Tolkein trilogy. Poorly paced, clumsily reverse-engineered to preface The Lord of the Rings, and episodic to the point of tedium, its mostly interchangeable characters weren’t particularly interesting and gave us little reason to invest in their dilemmas. Some of the action set pieces impressed, but the downtime between those scenes was dramatically inert or filled with connect-the-dots exposition. After three hours, the story and character arcs felt woefully incomplete.

The Desolation of Smaugimproves on most of those issues but suffers from the fact that it simply cannot stand on its own as a movie. This is not only because of its abrupt cliffhanger ending but because its entire 161-minute running time is all rising action without an emotional or narrative pay-off.

Picking up pretty much where the last film left off, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the mostly anonymous band of dwarves continue their trek to the Lonely Mountain, where Thorin (Richard Armitage) hopes to reclaim his lost kingdom. With albino orc Azog the Defiler in pursuit, the group ventures into the tangled forest of Mirkwood, where they encounter giant spiders and wood elves. This allows Jackson to bring back fan-fave Legolas (Orlando Bloom) while introducing Tauriel (Lost’s Evangeline Lilly), a warrior elf who develops the hots for the tallest, best-looking dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). Meanwhile, working overtime to link his two trilogies together, Jackson’s movie detours to show us Gandalf’s encounter with the “mysterious” Necromancer who haunts Dol Guldur.

From a rollicking barrel chase escape to a rest stop in water-bound Lake-town to, finally, a frenzied confrontation in the gilded lair of the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), this second chapter is bigger and more exciting than its predecessor. Bilbo is starting to develop as the burglar-hero, Legolas and Tauriel bring welcome subplots, and a few of the dwarves comes into sharper focus.

The movie looks better too — more otherworldly and fantastical. Where An Unexpected Journey mostly felt like landscape leftovers from LOTR (the goblin city excepted), the Desolation of Smaug establishes its own sense of place. Mirkwood is wonderfully rotted and knotted while the treasured halls under Lonely Mountain are vast. It’s as if Jackson is back in touch with the garish showmanship he displayed in his early horror flicks, sending his camera banking and soaring through Middle Earth with giddy aplomb.

And we must mention Smaug, the best depiction of a dragon to ever hit the silver screen. Kiwi special effects house WETA has outdone itself with a fire-breathing monster that is epic in size and personality. With flames smoldering under his scales and a face that is as expressive as it is bestial, Smaug is a terrifying foe and rapturous digital creation. And Cumberbatch’s thundering line delivery brings enough nuances to reveal a character beneath the layers of high-priced pixels.

Ultimately,The Desolation of Smaug makes it clear that Jackson has decided to use Tolkein’s children’s novel as a foundation for his own epic storytelling goals. In fact, this second installment seems to abandon notions that it’s a kids’ tale at all, indulging in more lavish acts of violence (including a quartet of beheadings) — a clear mismatch with the academic author’s mostly pacifistic longing for the simplicity of a pastoral England. For some, the stiff drama, hastily sketched characters and ridiculously inept villains (can’t they hit even one dwarf?) will recall George Lucas’ bloated and cynically cash-minded Star Wars prequels. For fans, however, there’s enough motion and thrills to bring them back for — ugh — another three-hour installment.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens Friday, Dec. 13. It’s rated PG-13 and has a run time of 161 minutes.

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