The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - Review
Another year, another Hobbit movie. Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy got off to something of a rough start with An Unexpected Journey, a film that, whilst entertaining, suffered from far too much bloat and a meandering story. Fortunately, The Desolation of Smaug manages to fix a lot of the previous instalment's problems.
First off, the unique set designs. Jackson wastes no time thrusting the dwarves and Bilbo into new dangers as they enter the trippy Mirkwood and are attacked by giant spiders. And that's just the start, an epic barrel ride, a trip through Laketown, which, more so than any other location, benefits from a return to the realism that only physical sets can bring. The Lonely Mountain might only be capable of being brought to life by digital effects but a certain dragon ensures that it remains memorable.
Perhaps the best way to think of Jackson's Hobbit trilogy is less of a faithful adaptation of Tolkien's children's novel and more as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings films. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Gandalf's subplot throughout the movie, which sees the elderly wizard, accompanied by Radagast (without his bunny-sled), delving into the ruins of Dol-Guldur to hunt down the Necromancer. Admittedly, this does mean that Ian McKellen spends most of his screen time chasing an amorphous black blob but the suitably epic appearance of Sauron makes it mostly worthwhile.
The dwarves meanwhile, along with Bilbo...y'know the Hobbit who is supposedly the main character, continue on their quest for the Arkenstone. Cue that aforementioned sequence which sees the group hurtling along a river in a bunch of old wine barrels whilst they are chased by a pack of Orcs, not to mention a rather miffed Legolas and newcomer Tauriel.
Tauriel, played by Lost star, Evangeline Lilly, was met with scepticism by a portion of the Middle Earth fan base due to her being an original character not featured in Tolkien's original writings. Admittedly, her arc during the film falls rather flat, with the competing love interests: Legolas and Kili the dwarf, not being developed enough. Legolas in particular, comes across rather bland here, with his archery skills crossing over from superior elven dexterity into outright superhero mode. It's not so much that Tauriel's, and to an extent, Legolas', sequences are boring, but that they are weakest link in a movie that is still in desperate need of trimming down and developing a better focus.
In fact, amidst the abundance of new and returning characters, it becomes difficult for any of them to stand out. Bilbo in particular is criminally underused throughout the film, with only a few moments here and there where he gets to shine. The highlight of course, being his encounter with Smaug. It's interesting that, as with An Unexpected Journey, the best scenes are those that remove a lot of the excess that inhabits the rest of the movie and simply focus on an engaging exchange between two characters. In the first film that was Bilbo's battle of wits with Gollum and here it's the encounter with Smaug. Martin Freeman gets to show off his comedic subtleties, whilst his Sherlock partner Benedict Cumberbatch puts in an equally good performance as Smaug, imbuing the fire-breathing lizard with equal parts vanity and menace.
Of course, Jackson couldn't help but end the film with yet another drawn out, overly complex, fight sequence that risks turning the action into some kind of comical video game. It doesn't quite reach the levels of absurdity that the Goblin Town sequence did in An Unexpected Journey but it is somewhat disappointing after the brilliant conversation between Smaug and Bilbo.
Overall, The Desolation of Smaug manages to capture more of that Lord of the Rings feeling that the first Hobbit movie was desperately lacking. It still suffers from problems due to the episodic nature of the storytelling, which in turn affects the overall pacing of the film, but not to the point where it slows the film down drastically. This is still a story that could have easily been told in two movies and even then would have been capable of fitting in plenty of the supporting material that Peter Jackson seems so fond of. While it doesn't reach the epic heights his original trilogy, this is still a movie that sets itself up well for a truly grand finale next December.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was released worldwide on December 13th.
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