A scan over reviews for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug reveals for the most part the “Much better than its predecessor” view that accompanies the release of so many high profile sequels (think Harry Potter; James Bond). It’s easy to get swept up in this mindset.
Personally though, I found this middle installment in this epic fantasy trilogy to be more of the same – duplicating pretty much all the flaws present in Part One, AKA An Unexpected Journey. When director Peter Jackson sticks closely to JRR Tolkien’s novel (I admit, I’m a fan) the results are far more successful than when he attempts to depict all the “behind the scenes” action that bridges this prequel and Tolkien’s follow-up, The Lord of the Rings. As a result, highly engaging action set pieces alternate with unnecessary scenes that grind the 2-and-a-half hour movie to a halt, and the overall experience tends to be narratively flabby and frustrating – if always technically superb.
Kicking off at the exact point the first film ended, The Desolation of Smaug offers no entry point for cinemagoers new to JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth. You will have had to watch An Unexpected Journey because there are zero character introductions (or evolutions for that matter!) and motive explanations. And this is a movie centred on a company of fifteen adventurers – thirteen dwarves (led by Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield), hobbit Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman) and scruffy-looking wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen).
For the record, The Desolation of Smaug tracks the band as they race against time to reach the Lonely Mountain in time for the one day of the year when a secret entrance to the desolate dwarven fortress will be revealed. This is easier said than done given obstacles that include giant spiders, stubbornly isolationist elves, greedy townsfolk and endless pursuit by orcs. Not to mention Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who now lives in the Lonely Mountain. Oh, and there’s also a Necromancer busy forming his own army to enslave Middle-earth.
Yup, there is A LOT going on in The Desolation of Smaug… amidst the continual swirling long-shots designed to show off this CGI-enhanced fantasy world.
Just to clarify: there is also a lot that The Desolation of Smaug gets right. The title character is wonderfully realized in an encounter that Hobbit fans have been waiting decades to see on the big screen – even if the fight that follows it is overkill. The film’s barrel escape is also a contender for best chase sequence of the year. It’s even more gratifyingly inventive in terms of choreography than the mountain battle in 2012’s An Unexpected Journey. Watch out particularly for the moment that dwarf fattie Bombur gets to shine.
Also making an impression is The Lord of the Rings’ elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who returns in armoured badass mode. It’s a meatier depiction of the character all around: the wood elf’s principles and preconceptions are taking strain; while Bloom looks more physically impressive, having evidently muscled up over the years.
Tolkien enthusiasts will know that Legolas doesn’t appear in The Hobbit, although his inclusion here sits more comfortably than some of the other additions clearly designed to give the film more of a Lord of the Rings feel. Nowhere is this forced generation of formula more apparent than with Evangeline Lilly’s elven commander Tauriel. Invented for the film as an attempt to no doubt alleviate the sausage fest nature of Tolkien’s universe, it’s Liv Tyler’s Arwen all over again – falling for and healing (complete with brightly lit slow-mo chanting) a handsome lover in defiance of elven tradition. Except now she’s part of a love triangle. Massive Bechdel test fail!
The inclusion of the Tauriel story arc is cheesy and distracting. It introduces unnecessary bloat to the film, and the same goes for the amount of screen time devoted to events in Lake-town, the run-down human settlement near the Lonely Mountain. Here again a character – Luke Evans’s Bard the Bowman – is forced into another Lord of the Rings character mould. Bard is basically an Aragorn copy, the unwilling “man of the people” hero who has to make up for his ancestor’s failings when it mattered most. Evans’s pained expression and cutesy “Da! I love you, Da” interactions with his children become insufferable after a while.
Time and time again, for everything that The Hobbit does get right, it fumbles something else. Typically the audience gets hauled away from the chief characters – who could benefit from more development – to focus on supporting players and situations that we just don’t care about. All so that a simple focused adventure can be made to feel more grand and world-altering.
Despite excellent work by Freeman and Armitage especially, The Hobbit has yet to really emotionally connect with the audience. It’s all action bombast and visual dazzle, with 3D that is functional but not exceptional. After The Desolation of Smaug’s abrupt, if not at all unexpected, cliffhanger ending, here’s hoping all the pieces fall into place for next year’s The Hobbit: There and Back Again. Maybe we will finally get a taut Hobbit film. I don’t expect it though.
Last Updated: December 13, 2013