The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
2013 - 161 minutes
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch
Peter Jackson’s swollen adaptation of a 310-page book into three nearly three-hour epic films plods through its second lap with The Desolation of Smaug. Though overstuffed, the film builds enough momentum after a weary first act to sustain interest. As much as a movie that includes several scenes of walking, riding horses, and floating on boats can, I suppose. There’s no reason for this film to be longer than two hours, but Jackson is intent on stretching his world-building rubber band as close as possible to its snapping point.
And don’t ask me why the characters have to walk through a giant spider infested forest, ride miles on horses, float down a raging river, stow away on a barge to cross an icy lake, and climb an endless staircase carved into the side of a mountain when wizard/protector Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has the ability to summon large eagles seemingly at will – as seen in the final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – to transport the crew directly to their final destination. I guess the answer is simply because that solution isn’t befitting of a 9-hour epic series. I also guess that this paragraph is my attempt to fatten up this review.
The Desolation of Smaug picks up where An Unexpected Journey left off, with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and a crew of dwarves en route to Lonely Mountain where Thorin (Richard Armitage) will attempt to reclaim his lands from the titular dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). On the way they battle giant spiders, a gang of orcs, and, in a clunky, politically-driven sequence the oppressive leader of Laketown (Stephen Fry). As Thorin and his team trek, Gandalf exits to track down a source of creeping evil in Middle Earth, the Necromancer (also Cumberbatch), who is in the organizing phase of a hostile takeover. It’s also an aside for Jackson and his team of screenwriters – Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, to force in continuity with the Lord of the Rings saga spectacularie.
Also thrown into the fray is the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who was absent in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, but serves to loosely connect the filmic universe of the Rings and Hobbit stories. An entirely new character, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), is added to the roster to fight valiantly alongside Legolas and create a romantic subplot with the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). Bloom proves the white hair and bow still fit him well, while Lilly is a welcome addition to the universe, though her green outfit, red hair, and bow skills made me wonder if we were in the elven woods or Sherwood Forest. The pair of elven warriors is responsible for some of the most thrilling moments in the film – the battle against giant spiders and a chase scene involving the dwarves flying down raging rapids in wine barrels while pursued by orcs. Both of these sequences boast amazing effects and well-choreographed action, but they feel disconnected from the main narrative and show the strains of being shoehorned in for action’s sake.
And that’s the issue thus far with the two films in The Hobbit series. The films look great, sound great, and effectively stage the action, but there’s an overall lack of purpose or drive. It’s tough to reconcile a walk through a forest of giant spiders with the ultimate goal of defeating a dragon. The worst of the bloat comes in Laketown, where the dwarves are protected from the tyrannical leader by bargeman Bard (Luke Evans). It’s never clear why they have to hide or be protected, and once they reveal themselves, they are celebrated as potential saviors. This whole section of the film feels pointless and is the most protracted stopover until the climactic meeting with Smaug.
The climax is the most satisfying piece of the film, especially the dialogue between Bilbo, who gets shoved aside in his own story until this meeting, and the dragon. It’s telling that the best scenes in the first two films (the Bilbo-Smaug scene here, and the Bilbo-Gollum riddle scene in An Unexpected Journey) are dialogue driven and drawn directly from the source material, once again reaffirming the aimlessness of Jackson’s asides. There’s no reason this delightful climax couldn’t have come sooner, and there’s no reason it’s taken two films to set up what looks to be an action-driven final chapter, made all the more maddening by the cliffhanger ending here. While Desolation of Smaug has its merits, it’s hard to see the Middle Earth forest for the trees.
© 2013 by Blake Crane