Editor’s note: This review first ran Dec. 13, 2013.
‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ a welcome reprieve from insufferably slow predecessor
Let’s just come out and say it: There is no reason on this earth that will justify splitting J.R.R. Tolkien’s into three mind-boggling three-hour pieces. His epic, mainly classified as children’s literature heavily saturated in themes familiar to those growing up, clocks in just more than 300 pages. So you can see my frustration with stretching what amounts to 100 pages of plot over three hours. Not once, of course, but three times over the course of three years. You see the repetitiveness of this whole endeavor?
Ok, with that rant out of the way, we can delve into the epic that is the second installment of director Peter Jackson’s uber-extended edition of Tolkien’s famed book, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” Another three hours, another bout of feeling like the neglected middle child. But it’s hard to be upset after watching “The Desolation of Smaug,” because when it’s good, it’s very, very good. It reminds us of the talent Jackson possesses, and it’s truly memorizing in ways only an epic fantasy tale can be. But when it’s bad (or even just mediocre), it’s startlingly so, almost to the point of ripping you completely out of the film’s illusion. So we’re stuck somewhere between “Transformers” and “Harry Potter.” Aggravating, to say the least.
In “The Desolation of Smaug,” we’re reintroduced to our titular character, hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who continues on his journey as part of a group of rowdy dwarfs, led by dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on a mission to reclaim their lost homeland and its vast treasure from a menacingly, almost hypnotically voiced dragon known as Smaug (a silky Benedict Cumberbatch). As the film opens, the group, along with wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), is inching closer to the dwarf kingdom of Erebor (otherwise known as the Lonely Mountain). In “An Unexpected Journey,” their travels are treacherous and grueling. In “Desolation,” it’s no different.
Actually, that’s not really true. It’s become even more frenetic and chaotic. Around every corner lies some danger waiting to derail our heroes from their quest. Whether it’s orcs, trolls or stone giants, director Jackson uses his considerable budget to bombard the characters with volley after unnecessary volley of baddies. What should have been dangerous, through somewhat quick endeavor (it amounted to about five chapters in the book) has now become a knock-down-drag-out brawl with giant spiders and shape-shifters (Beorn, played by Mikael Persbarndt, offers shelter to our heroes) and demonic rings and disinterested elves (Orlando Bloom returns as the Elven heartthrob Legolas) and oh so much more.
There’s even a stop at the kingdom of the wood-elves, where Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace) paces elegantly and with purpose, quick to fall into soliloquy and even quicker to imprison the dwarfs simply because they won’t work with him. Legolas, however, isn’t such a bore, and his return to the series is a delight. As is Elven warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Liily), whose character was created for the movie (in part to add a female character to Tolkien’s male-heavy books). She well-developed and engaging, and she serves as a welcome addition to the film. It’s a pity, then, when she is the only character saddled with a romance. Why is that otherwise capable directors aren’t nearly incapable of having strong female characters without attaching a romantic male counterpart to them? Really, it’s unnecessary and distracting.
That’s not to the say the romance was ill-handled. It’s cute and charming and a source of light in what’s otherwise a fairly grim movie. It’s the simplicity of it, the familiarity and conventionality that’s the problem. Honestly, it’s lazy.
Again, the magic in “The Desolation of Smaug” centers on the small details, which you’ll find scattered throughout. Of course, in order to find them, you have to wade through countless battles against countless foes all in shot in 48 frames-per-second, which, as in “An Unexpected Journey,” is jarring at best and distracting at worst. The contrast between the high-quality, video game-style production clashes against real set pieces, and it has a nasty habit of reminding you this is still a movie.
But thanks to the interludes, the moments of contemplation and true film artistry, “The Desolation of Smaug” manages to shines regardless. Thanks to Freeman’s Bilbo, a character appealing and interesting and familiar all at once, we’re reminded there’s more to Middle-earth than dragons and the One Ring and desolation. Oh my.
Three dragon-fire stars out of five.