Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Rating

Director
Peter Jackson
Screenplay
Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Length
161 min.
Starring
Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Aidan Turner, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Cate Blanchett, Sylvester McCoy, Mikael Persbrandt, John Bell
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images

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Review
Anyone who’s read The Hobbit knows that it is little more than a children’s book that has a lot of great adventures, but isn’t overly embellished or particularly deep or meaningful. Peter Jackson continues to develop the world of Middle Earth with his second film in The Hobbit trilogy. The Desolation of Smaug is a fun, exciting follow-up that promises grand exposition in the final chapter next year.

I startwith a word of warning to Tolkien purists. The Lord of the Rings may have embellished or brought in extant material, but this new trilogy has done more to alter the direction of the books. An Unexpected Journey started things off by injecting the Azog storyline, which has loose ties to other Tolkien-published works. Yet, this latest installment departs more abundantly from the source material, removing notable scenes (as the original trilogy did) while adding a lot of material that isn’t in any published source and completely re-writing several segments of the story for narrative purpose. Yet, what’s added in doesn’t diminish the importance of the story and adds enough compelling throughlines to make for an entertaining middle chapter.

We left our thirteen hobbits, one wizard and one burglar as they emerged from the mountains pursued by Azog and his deadly orcs. We see the orcs now in pursuit of our heroes who must escape their detection while avoiding another threat in the forest, that of a giant bear. Once they resolve their issues with the bear, they head into Mirkwood forest, home of the Wood Elves where taint from the south encroaches upon the once verdant forest. As the corruption plays with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and company’s minds, they are captured by spiders and a series of events that unfold leading up to one of the most inventive and exciting action sequences ever filmed. If there was no more adventure than the barrel riding, audiences would still be satisfied, but a series of encounters in Laketown and later in the halls of Erebor with the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), add to the level of excitement, gripping the viewer and seldom relinquishing its grasp.

For his part, Jackson is a master craftsman, developing rich compositions that convey more information than could possibly be studied in one quick glimpse. He lingers as needed to tell you what’s happening on screen before moving on, eschewing rapid-fire editing for cohesiveness. Some of his dialogue is tad clunky and the glances and facial expressions at certain moments are a bit corny, but ultimately Jackson is a brilliant showman and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a perfect example of how richly rewarding his work can be.

There are two stories unfolding here, one the dwarven company attempting to reclaim a homeland, but a dark, nefarious force resides in Mirkwood far to the south. The Necromancer is summoning his forces for an assault on the Free Peoples of Middle Earth and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) soon recognizes this threat and diverts himself to investigate further trusting the dwarves and Bilbo to complete the task of eliminating one more potential weapon in the Necromancer’s arsenal: Smaug.

Being the middle chapter of a trilogy is a difficult position to be in. When you look at The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, it ended satisfyingly, but left expectations for the next film. The same can be said for The Desolation of Smaug. This film feels mostly like a whole film and while the end is somewhat anti-climactic, the cliffhanger more than builds expectation for the next film. From the clues in this chapter, fans of the book will know what to expect for a small portion of the movie, but fans of the film should be able to pick up on a few narrative threads digging into the film, but might not know what all to expet. That’s as it should be. Curious? Read the book. You won’t find the answers to the issues regarding the Necromancer in Dol Guldur, but you will find out what happens in Laketown and the scenes thereafter.

The returning cast continues to develop lasting, friendly characters whose motivations are always clear, but whose outcomes are less than certain. New characters aren’t always up to the task. Orlando Bloom’s return to the franchise as the elf Legolas isn’t a great one, though he does manage to make this version more aggressive and less empathetic than what he does in The Lord of the Rings. More up to the task is Lee Pace as his sneering, egotistical father Thranduil, king of the elves of Mirkwood. Pace turns from his affable portrayl on Pushing Daisies and delivers a great good/bad guy performance. His flawed designs on protecting his people above all others are tarnished by his isolationism, careless threats and disdain for those who are not of his stature or bloodline.

This includes a wholly new character for this film, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). With so many male characters, Jackson decided to inject the story with a heroine whose capabilities are as equal as any man and whose compassion surpasses those of her kin. Lilly delivers a far more compelling character than Liv Tyler did in the original trilogy, though she is still relinquished to the role of paramour, which somewhat diminishes her strengths. Thankfully, her character passes the Bechdel test, although what other woman would she be able to have a conversation with?

In the last film, certain dwarves stood out, but have been relegated to background characters this time around including the exceptional James Nesbitt as Bofur and Dean O’Gorman as Fili (who didn’t have a lot to do in the first film, but seemed to have more than this time around). Aidan Turner’s performance as Fili’s brother Kili is enhanced only by Lilly’s, the elf whose compassion brings her beyond the edge of her realm to save the young dwarf who hopes only to return home to his mother when all this is done. Graham McTavish is give more grumbling and screentime a Dwalin than in the first film, but remains a periphery, two-dimensional character.

Luke Evans is good as Laketown bargeman Bard, as is Mikael Persbrandt as the skinchanger Beorn, but it’s Stephen Fry as the careless Mayor of Laketown who steals the show in the last third of the film. Alongside his toady Alfrid (Ryan Gage), a more perfect pair of unlikable power-hungry people you could not find.

As expected, the production elements were all brilliant, from production design to costuming to makeup to sound design. For all the praise the original trilogy received for its visual effects, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug easily outdoes them. A few very minor clunky effects don’t detract from a largely brilliant visual design that creates gorgeous run-down towns in the middle of lake, realistic barrel rides and a massive dragon that could give all who came before it nightmares. This is the most visually arresting picture of the current trilogy and easily rivals the best of the predecessors when you take into account the evolution of effects since the last film rolled out ten years ago.

This is an adventure that takes the audience to new places, exciting, bold and beautiful places. A nice step up from An Unexpected Journey, Jackson leaves fans with hope that the third film due out next year will be equally amazing and perhaps even do this film one better.
Oscar Prospects
Guarantees: Visual Effects
Probables: Production Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
Potentials: Original Score, Original Song, Costume Design
Unlikelies: Cinematography, Makeup and Hairstyling (did not make the shortlist)
Review Written
December 23, 2013

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