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New Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Sir Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Mikael Persbrandt, and the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is one of the biggest disappointments of 2013. For an almost deadening 161 minutes, the movie offers lots of action and special-effects, but nothing to keep you emotionally invested in it. While director Peter Jackson creates some spell-binding visual images, there are a couple of special-effects here that are actually quite bad. And the plot is too thin and misguided to justify the movie's bloated length.
What happened to the magic and wonder Jackson brought to the original trilogy? With the original trilogy, Jackson directed each film like a man who believed with his whole heart in the stories he was telling. Here, he's simply dishing out a series of overlong and tedious action scenes, without putting much thought into things like plot and character development to really make us care. I complained in my review of the original movie that J.R.R Tolkien's 300 paged book The Hobbit didn't need to made into three movies, and The Desolation of Smaug does nothing to change my mind. It just feels like an excuse to put a little extra dough in the studio's bank.
The movie opens with a flashback scene, where the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) meets up with dwarf prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) in the town of Bree. Gandalf is there to not only warn him that someone is out to kill him, but to encourage him to take back his kingdom as well. In order to do this, Gandalf tells him that he'll need to hire a burglar to steal something called the Arkenstone, a magical jewel that's a symbol of Thorin's kingship, from the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch),
We then cut ahead "12 months later," picking up where the original movie left off. Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf, Thorin, and the 13 other dwarves are still on the run from Azog the Desecrator (Manu Bennett) and his minions. They take refuge in the home of a shape shifter named Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), who isn't too fond of dwarves, but lends them horses for their journey because he hates orcs even more.
From there, they journey through Mirkwood Forest, which is home to an army of deadly spiders and a group of hostile wood elves, led by the Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace). Among the elves is a character named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, who turns in the movie's best performance), a tough as nails warrior who is also a creation of screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson. The character is not uninteresting, but she is involved in what is perhaps the lamest subplot in the movie, a romantic triangle involving her, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner), who is the tallest dwarf in Thorin's group.
The wood elves capture Thorin and the others, and Bilbo uses his magical ring (which he stole from the creature Gollum in the previous movie) to help them escape. He then sends them down a raging river in empty wine barrels, and what follow is an action scene that not only goes on for way too long, but also features some of the worst special effects in the movie (just look at the effects used when Legolas balances himself on the heads of two dwarves, who are still floating down the river, and fires off arrows at a couple of nearby orcs). Our heroes eventually run into a dour fellow named Bard (Luke Evans), whom they bribe into smuggling them into the Lake-town Esgaroth.
The Lake-town was perhaps my favorite place in the book, and it is truly beautifully visualized in the film (the wintry atmosphere gives it a particularly luminous glow). After acquiring weapons from Lake-town, our heroes make off to the Lonely Mountain, where Bilbo has to sneak into the dragon's lair to obtain the Arkenstone. Meanwhile, Gandalf, who separated from the group before they entered Mirkwood, visits the castle of the Necromancer, where he discovers that Sauron has returned to Middle Earth and is preparing for war.
Perhaps the highlight of the movie is the dragon Smaug. Not only is he the best special-effect in the movie, but he's brought to menacing life by the immensly talented Benedict Cumberbatch. The scene where he first notices Bilbo is very well played, but then the other dwarves enter the lair, and what follows is an action scene that goes on for so long that it gets tiresome pretty quick. While all this is going on, the movie cuts back to Lake-town, where Bard is getting ready to use a black arrow that can kill the dragon, but is placed under arrest for literally no reason except that the movie needed to add some dramatic tension to the proceedings.
Many critics have stated that this movie is better paced than its lumbering predecessor, but nothing can be further from the truth. It's true that the movie is more action packed, but Jackson allows the action scenes to drag out to such unconscionable lengths that, in spite of the fact that the movie is eight minutes shorter than An Unexpected Journey, the movie ends up feeling much longer. Martin Freeman is once again very good as Bilbo, but the character is so blandly written that we feel nothing for him. The dwarves are still a pretty dull bunch of characters, and Thorin still comes across as a character we can't care much about.
Then there's the movie's abrupt final scene. Of course, in trilogies, there are always going to be unresolved story threads, but the movie chooses such a bizarre stopping point that it's bound to leave more than a few movie goers angry. In fact, the movie overall is such an unsatisfying experience that you might be left wondering why so many critics are cutting it slack. I didn't much like the first movie (and yes, I did give it a second chance), but at least it had some of the magic from the previous movies. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is just an empty and soulless spectacle, nice to look at in spots, but no fun to watch.
Final Grade: ** (out of ****)
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