Review: ‘The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug’ Ups the Action, Sacrifices the Fun

By December 8, 2013
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Most of the complaints towards Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films are targeted at the ambition rather than the final product. “Why does this need to be three movies?” cries the Lord of the Rings fan who just found out J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel was a mere single tome. And yet, for the most part, Jackson has justified his decision to stretch the story to trilogy length through his scripting and directorial choices. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey introduced us to a new Middle Earth, colorful, quirky, and bright — the dark storm that enveloped Lord of the Rings looming in the background. Jackson had the freedom to let his imagination run wild, turning Unexpected Journey into an indulgent spectacle rather than his previous fantasy epics.

Jackson’s middle Hobbit chapter, Desolation of Smaug, is equally obsessed with the nooks and crannies of Tolkien’s world, packing the added agility of established characters and missions. Desolation of Smaug is an action feast, a bombardment of set pieces strung together with tenuous drama. The movie aches to find Two Towers-esque parallel story lines for its fully loaded cast, but the material won’t serve it. In its two hour and 40 minutes, minor detours quickly lead back to a linear race. But Jackson barrels through it at full throttle. Desolation of Smaug is Tolkien fantasy unleashed, keeping up with the Avengers-inspired Hollywood that wants its blockbusters bigger and bigger and bigger.

There’s no hand-holding in Desolation of Smaug, making a revisit to An Unexpected Journey a must. The movie picks up with Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Thorin (Richard Armitage), and the rest of the questing dwarves as they retreat from pursuing orcs and make their way to the Lonely Mountain, where the dragon Smaug reigns king. Their hurdles come in all shapes and sizes; a horde of oversized spiders, a testy posse of Mirkwood elves, more of those gosh darn orc warriors, and the men of Lake-town, who barricade themselves off from outsiders. More episodic than its predecessor, Desolation of Smaug is akin to watching a video game, jumping from stage to stage and hitting the “A” button as fast as you can when the pesky dialogue trees pop up.

Surprisingly, its the additions made by Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens that keep Desolation of Smaug involving. To plant seeds for the “future” Lord of the Rings movies, the trio sends Gandalf on a side expedition to investigate the Necromancer from the first film, a revelation that provides McKellan with plenty of ridiculous, entertaining dialogue and a magical twist on action. It’s woefully brief — the sporadic exposition that should be adding pressure to the do-gooders of Middle Earth wafts in and out of the picture, more an excuse to callback to the eye of Sauron than up the stakes.

Tauriel, another of Jackson’s non-canon creation, adds necessary dimension and flavor to the balls-to-the-wall fight sequences. Bringing the physicality and tenderness she displayed in “LOST,” Evangeline Lilly is the only character in Desolation of Smaug who maneuvers like her world is real. She’s torn between social classes in Mirkwood — Orlando Bloom’s Legolas returns as the prince with his eye on Tauriel, despite his king father Thranduil (Lee Pace) disapproving — and she’s captivated by the dwarves, Kili (Aidan Turner) in particular, as they venture to free their homeland. She’s a fighter with a warm soul. She’s a person, not just a pewter miniature in a $300 million Dungeons & Dragon campaign.

And she, like each character in Desolation of Smaug, kicks ass. Jackson orchestrates eye-popping, CG-enhanced sequences in this film, evolving the “rules” of LOTR and Unexpected Journey to near-impossible degrees. Legolas was a skilled bowman who occasionally surfed his way down a flight of stairs. Now he and Tauriel are Cirque du Soleil performers, flipping, sliding, and parkouring over goblins to land arrows in their backs and slice their skulls down the middle. The dwarves continue to be muscled axe-swingers, but with elves backing them up, Jackson turns his bumbling heroes into a troupe of silent film stars primed for slapstick comedy. In a scene where the dwarves escape the orcs by floating down a river in barrels, the director embraces the fluidity of special effects to swing back and forth between opponents in a series of crazed, lengthy shots. Jackson operates in Tintin mode, sending one barreled dwarf up into the air, down a hill, under a few orcs, then back into the water, all while the other soldiers are warding off the opposition in different directions. It’s a feat of controlled chaos that’s truly astounding.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

What’s missing from Desolation of Smaug is Bilbo. He’s completely sidelined in the film, despite his many moments of heroism (thanks to his inviso-ring, he’s constantly saving the dwarves). Freeman did an extraordinary job reverse engineering Ian Holm’s LOTR trilogy work in the first Hobbit, but in the sequel, he’s void of personality, agreeable, confident, and moving too quickly to dwell on his actions or place in the world.

After the dwarves wind up in Lake-town and consult with Bard (Luke Evans), a stretch when the movie nearly keels over and dies from exhaustion, the pint-sized fellowship finally arrives at Lonely Mountain and Freeman gets to shine. The back 45 minutes of Desolation are a breath of fresh air, with Benedict Cumberbatch sizzling under the mo-cap guise of Smaug. He and Freeman battle with wits as Bilbo desperately searches for a shiny MacGuffin, culminating in a massive battle in the halls of a dusty dwarven palace. Cumberbatch’s pompous poetics and the energy and precision of the filmmaking lights a fire under the second Hobbit, all of Jackson’s passion to the franchise seemingly directed towards this encounter, and it’s vividly realized.

The Hobbit needs to be three movies because Jackson is a filmmaker who continues to reinvent his own mainstay with grandeur and excitement. But ultimately Desolation of Smaug is disorganized — spotty pacing amounts to paper thin drama. There’s nothing to care about unless our characters have swords held to their throats. Unexpected Journey had humor, fear, and a sense of perseverance. Desolation of Smaug has ferocity like a Tilt-a-Whirl. Luckily, Jackson’s Middle Earth is an enjoyable place to experience both, however fleeting.

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Matt Patches
Matt Patches is a writer and reporter living in New York City. His work has been featured on New York Magazine’s Vulture, Film.com, Hollywood.com, MTV, and he is the host of the pop culture podcast Fighting in the War Room. He continues to love Groundhog Day.