The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) / Fantasy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and scary images
Running Time: 85 min.
Cast: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Luke Evans, Aidan Turner, Ken Stott, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace, Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mikael Persbrandt
Small role and cameo: Cate Blanchett, Stephen Colbert, Peter Jackson, Billy Connolly, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro (based on part of the book "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien)
Review published December 13, 2013
Continuing the short book that is stretched out to epic saga proportions, Peter Jackson's The Desolation of Smaug (and I say "Peter Jackson's" as this film series is more of the director's interpretation than it is J.R.R. Tolkien's) continues the story of Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage, Captain America) and his twelve other dwarf brethren as they make their way close to The Lonely Mountain to, hopefully, vanquish a terrifying dragon named Smaug and reclaim their lost kingdom. Bilbo Baggins (Freeman, The World's End) is the Hobbit brought along to be their thief who will, when the time comes, sneak into Smaug's lair and try to smuggle out a powerful gem known as the Arkenstone.
While it is lavish and grandiose, as you would expect from a Jackson treatment, Desolation of Smaug takes a while to generate any organic momentum, as it veers into side stories and characters not found in Tolkien's original 1937 masterwork (the novel's purists will likely dub this, "The Desecration of Tolkien"). It may be the weakest of Jackson's Middle-Earth series thus far, and while it is fine enough in spots, particularly its final forty-five minutes, to garner a recommendation for fans of the series, it's difficult not to come away thinking that Jackson would have done better to stick to his original game plan of keeping "The Hobbit" down to a span of only two tightly plotted movies, rather than this bloated and occasionally stagnant collection of three.
The problem here is that Tolkien's "The Hobbit" is loved by many for its simple narrative that delves into the character of Bilbo Baggins and how his adventure molds him into the kind of being that would inspire such a tale of courage. In Desolation of Smaug, (which should have been titled, An Unexpectedly Longer Journey), up until the showdown between Bilbo and Smaug near the end of the film, the hobbit whose presence merits the book's title is little more than a supporting character. Deemed nearly as important is a side story wholly manufactured for this movie involving a superficial romance (more like infatuation than honest love) between an elf named Tauriel (Lilly, The Long Weekend) and Kili (Turner, The Mortal Instruments), an unnaturally good-looking dwarf. Meanwhile, also unlike the book, Legolas (Bloom, POTC: At World's End) makes an appearance in this second Hobbit film, and he's given more screen time than he had in any of the films in which he is supposed to be a main character.
As with nearly all of Jackson's films since The Fellowship of the Ring, the strengths are the spectacle and beauty of his vision, while the weaknesses come from the director not knowing when enough's enough. That's certainly the case here. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" book trilogy is over four times as long as his solo novel of "The Hobbit", and yet the latter is drawn out to an equal length in terms of screen time. But one can only wonder, given the wavering nature of this new trilogy's quality, for what benefit? Is it a love letter to Tolkien, or just an excuse at another cash cow to milk dry?
It's often the case with this movie universe that the technical and production aspects of each film -- the special effects, the art design, the costume design, the score, the cinematography -- are where the lion's share of its points are scored. Actors and wholly CGI creatures cohabitate many scenes, and, for the most part, it's a seamless experience worth every kudos that can be ascribed. However, whole I won't begrudge that Desolation of Smaug is a marvelous-looking motion picture experience, this is the first of the films in which I was taken out of the film due to poor effects (a scene involving giant spiders is clunkier than it should be) and bits of sloppiness in its editing.
Water effects in particular look especially CGI, and when the biggest non-dragon scene of the film is an extended wine barrel ride down a river, taking us out of the film at this critical moment is definitely not the intended result. Other effects shots that are poorly done involve most panoramic scenes in which the group of dwarves are shown in long shots, as we can almost see the outline of the characters that are superimposed digitally into each striking vista. And one final quibble, I noticed at least three instances in which a character's dubbing did not match the lips. None of these are enough to ruin the film, but one can't help but feel that one year between films may not have been enough to give it the spit and polish it deserves.
Nevertheless, as mentioned previously, when the group finally comes to the Lonely Mountain, that's when the gripping material finally sets in. A lengthy scene in which Bilbo and Smaug, voiced richly by Benedict Cumberbatch (The Fifth Estate, 12 Years a Slave), show down is probably the best of the new trilogy thus far, showing that, contrary to how Jackson seems to approach the rest of the story in this film, that keeping things simple is often the best possible route. And even then, this scene goes on far too long for its own good. It may be positively stunning, but how many scenes of Bilbo running and tumbling do we need from a storytelling standpoint to realize that he's in a perilous situation? Again, in place of story, we get oodles and oodles of spectacle, and while that spectacle is undeniably choice, momentum eventually peters out when it should only magnify in intensity.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a handsome, often majestic movie in most respects, and certainly is a must-see for fans of the film who will relish every new character and extended situation. Visually, it delivers the goods, but the watered-down story elements take what could have been a masterpiece of fantasy cinema and diluted it down to just an entertaining one. It's a decidedly more dour entry than An Unexpected Journey, and with the introduction of the elves and orcs (seemingly only in this film to inject action scenes at regular intervals), it does feel more in line with the tone of the LOTR trilogy than the pages of Tolkien's childrens' novel. The problem is really the length -- as Tolkien wrote, "thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread." Like the Baggins' relationship with the Ring, Jackson seems too addicted by the allure of Tolkien's fantasy world to let it out of his grasp until he absolutely has to. And, like Smaug, the enabler called Warner Bros. is far too enamored at hording the untold riches that come with each successive release.
©2013 Vince Leo