A film review by Craig J. Koban December 20, 2013  



2013, PG-13, 161 mins.


Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins  /  Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield  /  Ian McKellen as Gandalf  /  Stephen Fry as The Master of Laketown  /  Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug / The Necromancer  /  Lee Pace as Thranduil  /  Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel  /  Orlando Bloom as Legolas

Directed by Peter Jackson  /  Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro  /  Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien 


THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG – the second film in the trilogy - is an utterly eye-popping and stupendously immersive triumph of visual effects ingenuity.  On a pure level of out-of-body escapism, director Peter Jackson is able to thoroughly transport viewers to the exotic, minutely detailed, and expansive fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth as so few other directors would have been capable of achieving.  THE HOBBIT 2 just delivers on these levels of immersing viewers in its lush and fully realized universe.  Like the STAR WARS films before it, Tolkien’s world is lovingly evoked on the silver screen for us to gaze at in a sensation of endless awe and wonder.  

Alas, this HOBBIT sequel – for as visually dynamic as it certainly is – never gels cohesively on a plotting level.  That, and self-indulgent excess and narrative bloat seems to stymie this film perhaps more so than last year’s prequel, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY.  That 2012 film posed a fair and intriguing question: What are the real motives behind Jackson and his fellow screenwriters taking Tolkien’s relatively slim (a shade over 300 pages) 1937 literary source material and stretching it out to not one, not two, but THREE films…all with running times closing in at three hours?  AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY’S sluggish and padded scripting held the film back from greatness, and perhaps more than ever, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG further struggles with a wanton unwillingness to tell a taut and well-paced self-contained story.  Yes, this is the middle chapter in a trilogy, to be fair, but even THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK managed to have a definitive sense of a beginning, middle, and end; THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, by comparison, feels like one long near-three hour build up to a third act that never really comes…and then it ends with stupefying abruptness. 



Much like the first film, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG opens with a somewhat unnecessary prologue that shows Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the downtrodden and exiled dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) having a chance meeting in a Middle Earthian bar.  The film then flashforwards more rightfully to the point where the last film’s story left off, as hobbit Bilbo Baggins (a wonderful Martin Freeman, this series’ stellar highlight) and Gandalf continuing on their journey with 13 other dwarfs – led by Oakenshield – to reclaim the dwarf lands ruled over by Smaug (voiced with bass heavy oomph factor by Benedict Cumberbatch), a fire breathing dragon that carefully guards vast riches.  After a series of setbacks – including a spine-tingling and unnerving battle with a squadron of giant spiders than will make any audience member with arachnophobia wince in terror – the fellowship finds themselves in some hot water with the Elf King Thranduill (Lee Pace), which leads to their imprisonment.  The crafty Bilbo, though, helps them all escape, and with bloodthirsty Orcs in hot pursuit, the hobbit and his allies find themselves getting closer to the Lonely Mountain and an unavoidable confrontation with Smaug. 

THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, as previously stated, is a lovingly crafted and executed tour de force exercise in technological whiz-bangery and action.  The aforementioned skirmish with those gigantic arachnids is as skillfully rendered of a visual effects sequence as any I’ve ever seen, as is a later extended action/chase sequence that has the dwarfs and Bilbo barrel-ridding down a treacherous river while evading deadly Orc attacks (sequences like this have a spirited sense of swashbuckling merriment that the series desperately lacks and needs).  Then there is Smaug himself, a simultaneously frightening, yet gracefully envisioned monstrosity that gives the film’s final section a sense of fixated intrigue and terror (that, and we get to witness SHERLOCK co-stars share the silver screen together…sort of).  With the absence of a Gollum in this episode, Smaug’s climatic appearance in the film more than makes up for it; he’s a striking CG creation that certainly fills the Gollum void. 

Yet, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG takes so…bloody…loooong to build to this standoff between Bilbo and Smaug in his vast gold adorned lair.  Too much of the film’s already swollen scripting seems to meander from one disinteresting sub-plot to the next and, when that’s not happening, the storyline awkwardly trudges around and abruptly changes character focus in distracting manners.  It’s funny, but for a film titled THE HOBBIT, Bilbo himself seems to take a back seat as a secondary character within his own movie.  We get multiple character asides, such as an added emphasis on Thorin’s obsessive mission to reclaim the Lonely Mountain, or a somewhat clumsily handled segue showing Gandalf having a chance meeting with an old enemy.  Then there is an added-in love story that becomes a love triangle between the sharp-shooting elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), she-elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and one of the dwarfs, Kili (Aiden Turner) that never really propels the forward momentum of the story.  It should also be noted that Legolas never appears in the original HOBBIT novel, nor does Tauriel (a completely created persona for the film).  Lily at least brings a feisty feminine nobility and toughness to this otherwise male centered series, even though he character – and Legolas himself – could have been excised from the film altogether. 

Then there are even more story detours, like one involving a boatman/merchant named Bard (a fine Luke Evans) that has a shaky alliance with Bilbo and company; he too has an old score to settle with the dreaded Smaug.  The longer the film progresses the more watch checking it elicits; there’s simply too much going on here that strays away the primary focus of the journey of Bilbo et al and the confrontation with Smaug.  I have read that less than half of what occurs in THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG can be found in the original HOBBIT text, which is kind of confounding.  What we have here is a 161-minute showcase of spectacular visuals and stellar action set pieces that are sandwiched between an endless parade of multiple character introductions and focus straining plot detours.  When the film does reach its end – which doesn’t so much conclude this film’s story, but rather just stops it – I left the theatre feeling disappointed and somewhat exhausted.  THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG never fully justifies its running time and scripting heft. 

Peter Jackson is one of the most talented film artisans working today in terms of his ability to painstakingly craft a cinematic portrait of Middle Earth that breathes with a lived-in authenticity.  You gain a sense of his unbridled passion for this material all through this HOBBIT, the previous entry, and the original LORD OF THE RINGS films.  Unfortunately, his unchecked worship of Tolkien’s world has left us with two HOBBIT film entries that lack disciplined editorial choices.  THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is a gorgeously imagined film and epically staged film fantasy that will, no doubt, appease die-hard Tolkienites; Middle Earth has never looked so good.  Yet, more agnostic viewers will find themselves fidgeting in their theatre seats more than they should.  Here’s hoping that the concluding chapter in the mostly needless thrilogy-izing of the brief 1937 novel can end the series on a high note.  Maybe with some Gandalfian tricks of its sleeve, THERE AND BACK AGAIN will be able to trim back some – or hopefully a lot – of the narrative excesses of its predecessors. 



THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is the second film that I have screened in a HIGH FRAME RATE 3D presentation, or one that utilizes a 48 fps look as opposed to the standard 24 fps.  Even though the HFR presentation amps up the brightness of the inherently dim looking 3D – which is a bonus for many of THE HOBBIT’s darkly shot sequences – it nonetheless remains an aesthetic distraction.  As I mentioned in lengthy detail in my review of AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, the HFR presentation sort of betrays the cinematic grit, texture and look of THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG.  If you can, seek out the film in a standard non-3D presentation.

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