The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review
Posted by Jeffrey Harris on 12.13.2013
The journey of Bilbo Baggins continues in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug! Is the film a worthy installment of the Lord of the Rings franchise or a disappointment? 411's Jeffrey Harris checks in with his full review!
Directed By: Peter Jackson Written By: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro Runtime: 161 minutes MPAA Rating: PG-13
Bilbo Baggins - Martin Freeman Gandalf - Ian McKellan Thorin Oakenshield - Richard Armitage Smaug - Benedict Cumberbatch Legolas - Orlando Blom Tauriel - Evangeline Lilly Bard - Luke Evans Thranduil - Lee Pace Master of Lake-town - Stephen Fry Dwalin - Graham McTavish Balin - Ken Stott Kili - Aidan Turner Fili - Dean OíGorman Dori - Mark Hadlow Ori - Adam Brown Nori - Jed Brophy Oin - John Callen Gloin - Peter Hambleton Bifur - William Kircher Bofur - James Nesbitt Bombur - Stephen Hunter Azog - Manu Bennett Bolg - Lawrence Makoare Beorn - Mikael Persbrandt Radagast the Brown - Sylvester McCoy
Direcctor and writer Peter Jacksonís new trilogy based on The Hobbit, the prequel to J.R.R. Tolkienís all-time great literary trilogy of The Lord of the Rings continues with its second installment, The Desolation of Smaug. The irony of movie trilogy based on The Hobbit novel is in fact the shortest book in comparison to the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. And yet the movies are almost equal in their epic length in comparison to Jacksonís cinematic trilogy, which earned 17 Academy Awards.
The story follows a bit of an interesting queue from previous cinematic sequels of The Lord of the Rings with a flashback of sorts before returning to the story proper. We are taken to a familiar scene of the town of Bree and the Prancing Pony inn (lo and behold, Jackson still wanders the town chomping on a carrot). Thorin Oakenshield takes some respite at the Prancing Pony only to grow leery of some unsavory types that are watching over him. Heís then intercepted by Gandalf the Grey (McKellan) who sets Oakenshield out on the path in which we currently find our heroes. The story then picks up a short time after the end of An Unexpected Journey, returning to Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) and his quest to help Thorin Oakenshield and his company of dwarves to reclaim their lost homeland of Erebor from the dragon Smaug. Still under the threat of pursuit from the evil orc Azog the Defiler and his minions, Thorinís company are led by Gandalf to the house of the skin-changer Beorn (Persbrandt), a man who can take the form of a wild, monstrous bear.
The company then heads to Mirkwood in the next part of their journey to the Lonely Mountain. Mirkwood is no easy trek as the dwarves get lost and then nearly fall prey to what appear to be Shelobís giant arachnid spider cousins. Bilbo, who recently having come into possession of what will later turn out to be the One Ring, outwits and defeats his arachnid enemies. His friends though are soon taken prisoner by a familiar face in the one and only elf prince Legolas (Bloom), son of the Elven King Thranduil (Pace). Thranduil is not as accommodating and understanding like other elves such as Elrond and Lady Galadriel, and the abrasive Thorin doesnít make things much better. Thorin is still unable to look past Thranduilís failure to help the dwarves after their exile from Erebor. Bilbo, still free due to his use of the ring, is able to sneak into Thranduilís palace and free his brethren as they escape from Mirkwood in a river using barrels, having to outrun both orcs and elves in a thrilling sequence. The company then must deal with the slum of Lake-town in order to make it to the hidden door of Erebor before the last light of Durinís day in order to sneak into kingdom.
Itís hard to deny how thrilling it is to return to the realm of Middle-earth, as visualized by Jackson and his team at WETA Workshop. Itís always a sight to behold. While one still might question the wisdom of splitting The Hobbit into three two-and-a-half-plus hour movies, itís a journey that I will continue to take. Middle-earth continues to look incredible and wondrous onscreen. Watching the film in standard 3D was also preferable to my first experience of seeing An Unexpected Journey the first time in the 48 frames per second high frame rate. The motion capture for the orc characters like Bolg and Azog has definitely taken a couple steps up here as well.
I think the main issue with An Unexpected Journey in the theatrical version that too much time was taken with the prologue connecting it with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. While I enjoyed such material, it likely wouldíve been better suited to save for the extended cut. Where the extended cut did make improvements however was making the material more whimsical like the original story with some more songs and humor. Here in The Desolation of Smaug, there are a lot of spinning plates and subplots within subplots that take away from the main story. Bilbo takes a bit of a backseat throughout the second and third acts as we deal with the politics of the declining Lake-town and the adversarial relationship with the respected bargeman Bard (Evans) and the greedy Master of Lake-town (Fry). Thereís also the more controversial aspect in cinematic creation that is Tauriel (Lilly). You see Tauriel is a character of whomís creation Tolkien had nothing to do with. Sheís a new featured character made exclusively for the films. But more than that, sheís basically a dead ringer for all the main characteristics of a Mary Sue. And her main purpose is to participate in a love triangle with Legolas and one of the more baby-faced heart throb dwarves in Kili (Turner). While Iím sure a character like Tauriel was made with the best of intentions, her appearance and storyline is regrettably forced. The Mary Sue characteristics are hard to ignore. While some of the dwarves didnít have a great deal of character development or distinct characters at all in the book, inventing this entire subplot really comes off as one of the unnecessary ways in which these movies were ultimately lengthened to three parts when they probably didnít need to be. By the time the third act rolls around, there way too much going on, and several events happen that do not really make sense. In terms of being a middle-chapter, itís not as effective as The Two Towers, which was at least able to finish with the victory at Helmís Deep and Sarumanís defeat at Isengard by the Ents.
That aside, once the movie does reach Erebor and Bilbo must brave Smaug alone, it is quite amazing to finally witness Smaug in his entire scaly splendor onscreen. In fact, Smaug was the main reason I always wanted to see The Hobbit adapted as a film with a performance not just vocally but also physically embodied by top thespian Benedict Cumberbatch. At first, I was a bit curious by the casting of Cumberbatch due to his rising profile. Why have him along just to voice Smaug, but then I later realized it was much more than that. WETA in their infinite wisdom want more out of their performers and actors than just having them provide a voice, much as the way they along with Andy Serkis changed the game with their interpretation of Gollum. The Smaug sequences are magnificent the way he takes up the entire screen.
Now, the more interesting story choices appear to be showing where exactly Gandalf was when he breaks away from the group in the book. Based on events depicted in the Appendices of The Return of the King, Gandalf investigates Dol Guldur and the growing threat that is the Necromancer. These events to some agree actually did take place concurrently with the events of the original novel, and they do provide a more fuller picture of where the story is heading for the later trilogy. We also evidently see The Ring and its corrupting influence take hold on Bilbo, who himself begins to become frightened by the changes in his behavior. It's an aspect of his performance that the earnest Freeman executes remarkably well.
While he tends to overshoot material on his movies, Jacksonís directing skills are more than up to par. The two earliest action set pieces between the tangle with the Mirkwood spiders followed by the barrel escape are both inventive and thrilling, much as the Moria chase in The Fellowship of the Ring was. Itís here where Jackson and his crewís penchant for embellishment with the material works a tad better. Jacksonís direction definitely hasnít lost a step, and he does a great job of letting the camera take in this amazing world and some incredible sets, vistas, and locations created by WETA Workshop and WETA Digital. Despite its flaws, Middle-earth is a realm I am eager to return to again with There and Back Again.
The 411: While the story and inclusion of new characters and subplots is flawed, Jackson's view into the realm of Middle-earth is still incredibly immersive and enthralling. Smaug is a sight to behold onscreen as well aspects of Middle-earth we have yet to see before such as the more destitute denizens and greedy politicians of Lake-town and the skin-changer Beorn. The story ultimately could've done without the inclusion of the Tauriel love triangle. But ultimately, the adventures of Bilbo Baggins are ones I am hard-pressed against continuing to miss.