The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review

Posted: December 23, 2013 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

DesoaltionWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper”

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a massive triumph commercially and artistically. The films received near unanimous praise from critics, audiences loved them, and each film made a killing at the box-office. It’s the kind of reaction that’s near impossible to live up to and sure enough, last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey didn’t. The film was still a huge financial success, but the reaction to the film wasn’t as enthusiastic. It had its supporters among both fans and critics, but there were also a lot of mixed to negative reviews. The film currently sits at a 65% at Rotten Tomatoes and is so far the only live-action Tolkien adaptation to not receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. I was among the disappointed crowd and stand by my largely negative review written last year. Still, I always knew I’d be back for the sequel. For one, The Hobbit is really too big a film to ignore and more importantly I wanted to think Peter Jackson could bring the series back, and with critics claiming The Desolation of Smaug to be an improvement over the first, I thought my hopes might have been realized.

The film opens with a brief prologue where the dwarf Thorin Oakenshild (Richard Armitage) meets Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). Gandalf presents Thorin a way to reclaim his home and collect the Arkenstone, which will allow Thorin to unite the dwarves again. The film then cuts to right after the events of An Unexpected Journey, with Thorin, Gandalf, the other dwarves, and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) fleeing from orcs. Early on, Gandalf realizes a greater evil is at hand at leaves the dwarves for his on quest. Meanwhile, Bilbo and the dwarves continue their journey to the Lonely Mountain, the dwarves’ home where the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) awaits.

Where An Unexpected Journey took forever to get going, The Desolation of Smaug quickly dives into the action. Within the first several minutes, we see the group escaping orcs, fighting off spiders, encountering the elves, and then fighting more orcs. It starts the film at a fast pace which is held through most of the film. Another big improvement Jackson has made here is how the tone is handled. The first film had a lot of really goofy and juvenile humour, which might have been acceptable had the film not also tried to be an epic with a true sense of weight. Here, the tone is much straighter. There are still some juvenile comedy bits, but they feel much more subdued and less frequent than the first film. This is for the best since there is a lot of darker foreshadowing, particularly in Gandalf’s story and the film also has a more somber ending than the first.

I don’t mean to give the impression that Jackson has solved all the first films issues because he hasn’t. Some key flaws return, specifically the sense of bloat and the lack of focus. At almost three hours, The Desolation of Smaug is far too long. The journey if this film is very simple and straightforward and does not need to be as long as it is. The only reason the film is so long is because of the unnecessary subplots this film is plagued with. First, there’s Gandalf’s side story, which can be enjoyable, but feels disjoined from the main story and only there to lead into the Rings trilogy. Then there’s the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who may only be here for fan service, but he does get some cool action scenes. Unfortunately he’s also involved with one of the worst subplots in the film, a love triangle between him, the new elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and the dwarf Ki’li (Adrian Turner). Questions of the ethics in interspecies romance aside, this subplot comes from out of nowhere, is completely forced, and is just uninteresting. I really don’t understand why it’s here. Stephen Fry also has a weird role here as the Lord of the town just outside The Lonely Mountain. It’s introduced that he’s probably corrupt and that is power might be coming into question, but that never really goes anywhere and what little there is isn’t very interesting.

The shame about all of these subplots is they take away from the truly interesting elements. Martin Freeman for example is great as Bilbo but he isn’t given much to do here. He has his moments in the beginning and a great confrontation with Smaug at the end, but throughout the middle he’s just sort of there. This was also true of the first film, but at least there the character had an arc. Here, Bilbo remains static. The idea that Thorin might actually be driven blindly by greed is also brought up, and I wish the film had spent more time exploring that aspect. I should also say that I loved Smaug, both in look and personality, and Cumberbatch’s voice work is pretty good. The scene with Smaug and Bilbo is definitely the highlight and the subsequent action scene that follows is pretty good too. The only problem is the film keeps cutting back to the significantly less interesting material Ki’li and Tauriel. As a second chapter, the film also suffers from lacking a beginning and an end. The film picks up right after the first with their journey unchanged, and when the film ends nothing is resolved. One could argue this true of several middle points of trilogies, but the problem feels exasperated here, likely due to breaking up one story into three parts when it wasn’t designed to be.

On the plus side, I found the action scenes to be largely improved this time around. Sometimes they got a little too cartoony, but moments like the fight with the spiders, the barrel chase, and the fight with Smaug are generally pretty exciting. There’s also some fun traditional orc hacking and slashing which I enjoyed. Even in Gandalf’s story, tacked on as it was, it was fun to see Gandalf use magic to fight off orcs. The technical details are also solid. There are some inconsistent special effects, but the great CGI on Smaug makes up for that in large part. I also enjoyed the art direction as we get to see new places in Middle Earth, such as northern Mirkwood and Lake-town. The costumes and make-up are all fine too. The only real disappointment is while the technial details are serviceable, outside of Smaug there is little wow factor visually. Where the Lord of the Rings trilogy seemed to lead the way as far as effects and technical aesthetics went, The Hobbit trilogy seems more to be keeping up.

Overall, I don’t really agree with the assessment that The Desolation of Smaug is really an improvement over the An Unexpected Journey. While certain aspects did feel stronger this time around, overall both films are about the same to me. Both have strong elements scattered, are solid technically, and feature a great scene between Bilbo and a CGI character. But both also suffer from audience pandering, bloat, and a lack of focus. And while The Desolation of Smaug is able to avoid some of its predecessor’s shortcomings, it makes up for that with problems of its own such as a lack of any real beginning or an ending as well as the lack of any character arcs. I don’t mean to be so hard on these films, but they keep letting me down.

D+

Comments
  1. brikhaus says:

    Solid, honest review. I haven’t seen it yet, but I suspect your opinion is spot on.

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