The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Release Date: December 13, 2013
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro (screenplay); J.R.R. Tolkien (novel The Hobbit)
Stars: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Peter Jackson’s decision to split the 300-page novel The Hobbit into three films meant that, unlike his streamlined Lord of the Rings trilogy, the director would be serving up a lot of fluff to pad out the story. That lead to an uneven first film in this new trilogy – An Unexpected Journey – which meandered with a never-ending dinner scene and other pointless diversions. However, with this second film, we are now in the meat of the story, which thankfully gives viewers a much more satisfying installment.
This film opens with a meeting between the wizard Gandolf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and Thorin (Richard Armitage), the dwarf looking to reclaim his homeland, that serves as a quick refresher for the audience. Sadly, the scene is effective enough in setting up the plot that it makes the first film feel even more superfluous. With the obvious exception of the iconic and important moment where Bilbo the hobbit (Martin Freeman) gets the ring from Gollum (Andy Serkis), it’s hard to argue that the first film is unnecessary altogether.
In case you did skip the first film, Bilbo, Thorin and a handful of other dwarves are on a mission to reclaim an important jewel that was stolen by the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who currently dwells in a mountain that was once the dwarves’ homeland. The band of heroes are also accompanied by Gandolf, though as it often happens in these stories, Gandolf frequently finds reasons to split from the group, since having an all-powerful wizard on your side tends to take a lot of the dramatic tension out of a the battle scenes.
This film has also added a new subplot that was not in the original story. It introduces us to a new elf character named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) who finds herself smack dab in the middle of an elf-dwarf love triangle with Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who fans will recognize from the Lord of the Ring series. I enjoyed Evangeline Lilly’s performance overall – it was nice to see a strong female character kicking orc ass – though the love triangle plotline overall did nothing for me.
The Desolation of Smaug is much better paced than its predecessor. It actually feels like a rather breezy two hours and 40 minutes. It has a strong sense of purpose and manages to keep a steady momentum building throughout the film. It devotes a lot of time to our heroes exploring Smaug’s lair, which was nice, since obviously that is the most anticipated part of the film. Bilbo and Smaug actually have time for a rather lengthy chat, which is entertaining in its own right, but even more enjoyable if you are a fan of BBC’s Sherlock, which features Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the lead roles.
The level of detail in Smaug’s lair is quite impressive. The entire treasure room that Smaug occupies looks like a live-action version of Scrooge McDuck’s vault, filled as far as the eye can see with gold and trinkets. It feels satisfyingly vast and opulent. And Smaug himself is something to behold. He is flawlessly rendered in CGI and thus feels like a real character instead of just a computer rendering. And Cumberbatch’s pleasing baritone adds a rich timber to Smaug’s lines. The scenes where Smaug was on-screen were easily the most enjoyable.
Overall, it’s a much more visually-pleasing film than An Unexpected Journey. The screening I attended was not presented in the much-maligned 48 frames per second and my understanding is that most theaters will not be showing it at that aspect ratio. Instead, it has been reverted back to the standard 24 frames per second, which is much less distracting and kinder to any visual flaws or imperfections.
While the film is solidly entertaining, it is still only the second of three movies. That means that unfortunately Jackson had to ensure that he had enough material left to fill a third film. So unfortunately, the climax of this film is shortchanged and feels a bit underwhelming. Is not so underwhelming that it ruins your enjoyment of the movie overall, but it definitely leaves you feeling a bit flat as you exit the theater
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.