WARNING: FULL SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. READ AT YOUR OWN PERIL!!!!!!
I walked into the local theater here in Chattanooga last weekend with some mixed feelings on what I both wanted, and what I expected from Peter Jackson’s second installment in his Hobbit trilogy. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a good movie, but not a great on in my ever so humble opinion. And so this time around, I went in half hoping that some of the mistakes of last year’s film were corrected, and half worried that I was simply in for more of the same. Oddly enough, as I sit here now in my office, and begin to write this review, I find myself in a very similar state of mind. Torn between the frustrating trail of flaws that litter this film from beginning to end, and what is otherwise an incredibly well told and expertly brought to life story. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a movie that sometimes seems to hope you’ll miss those flaws by distracting you with the spectacle of huge action and pretty CG, but is that really OK?
The first twenty minutes or so of The Desolation of Smaug are not in any way poorly made. We recap a bit of what occurred in the previous film, and are then introduced to a favorite of any fan of the novel, Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt). While seeing the massive shape shifter on screen was great both on paper and in the minds of millions of fans the world over. In practice Persbrandt’s middling performance and the the string of dialogue that only the most die hard of Middle Earth fans could follow continued to have me fearing the worst for the film. Luckily the party of dwarves, with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) of course, make it to the edge of Mirkwood. Mirkwood is really where I finally felt engrossed in the film. Seeing the Spiders of Mirkwood was really incredible, and some really smart decisions were made with how something as ludicrous as evil talking spiders were portrayed. From here the film just keeps upping the ante time and time again, making the second act the real stand out in the film. The newest addition to the Tolkien world, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the barrel chase (seen above), and the bulk of the time spent in Lake-town, are all wonderful scenes with strong performances and some jaw-dropping action. And before we move onto the third act of the film, I want to look more closely at two of these high points.
One of the best, or at the very least, most entertaining scenes in The Desolation of Smaug was the company’s fantastical escape from Mirkwood. In a portrayal of one of the most iconic moments of the novel, the dwarves and Bilbo escape with the help of some empty barrels via a river. Jackson took the scene to a completely different level though, with the scene lasting several minutes. One dwarf in particular, Bombur (Stephen Hunter), makes his presence well known with a feat of gymnastic that could have won as many gold medal, were barrel gymnastics to finally be given its well deserved spot in the Olympics — but that is a debate for another day I’m afraid. This scene also sets up a lot of the drama that takes place later in the film in Lake-town, and just general is a complete thrill ride to watch. It’s almost hard to keep up, but in the best way possible. There are a few small annoyances in this scene though. Jackson, for reasons I can not possibly fathom, decided to use what looks to be GoPro camera footage to gain a first person perspective as the dwarves go tumbling down the river in their barrels. The resolution of the footage is noticeably less than anything that comes before or after, not to mention the jarring nature of the spinning first-person perspective in the first place. This is also where you most notice some poorly done effects work. The scene is steeped in CG effects and green screen work, and it’s incredibly noticeable at times.
The other high point of the film was the final battle between the company and Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) himself. Once the dwarves get in on the action and the all out battle begins between these two, it’s really something to watch. Whatever effects budget was cut during the barrel scene, that money must have been put here, as the effects, particularly the work on Smaug, are near perfect. The voice work from Cumberbatch is also very helpful in selling you on the largeness and ferocity of the greedy dragon. Aside form these things, the scene is also once again a total visual spectacle in the way that makes all but the most hardened of cynics smile. It’s exciting, fast-paced, and extremely well executed. The only issue with the final act of the movie is the preceding scene in which Bilbo goes one on one with Smaug. In the novel this is an extremely important scene, and so I was particularly looking forward to it, but sadly It may be the most disappointing thing in the film. It carries on for what felt to me like an eternity, with bad pacing and enough shots of Bilbo sliding down piles of gold that I found myself wondering it Freeman had been told to attempt to channel Scrooge McDuck. Add to this an almost inexcusable amount of time in blurry “ring vision”, for lack of a better term, and you have a mount over half way into the firm where I was something I would have almost never thought I’d be — bored. Luckily the aforementioned final scenes that begin once the company of dwarves enters Erebor brought me back around and ended the film on a high, albeit abrupt, note.
Lastly, what’s a film with out some fantastic acting. And while some performances get lost by a combination of heavy effect and prosthetics and a large ensemble cast, there are still some great performances here. Freeman is wonderful as bilbo, capturing the charm and innocence of the hobbit race when needed, and making your chest swell when he does the same in his moments of pure bravery. McKellen also delivers another stellar performance, particular in his facing of the Necromancer. He commands your attention and respect, as any good wizard should I think. Ken Stott, as Balin, plays the only dwarf I believe really stands out from the crowd, though an argument could probably be made for Aidan Turner as Kili. Stott really sells it through all of the prosthetic though, and his somber line as he and Thorin enter the Lonely Mountain again is the single emotional moment I had in the film. Lily is a great addition to the cast as well, and regardless of your feelings on her characters role in the film, she plays the role expertly. It’s also nice to see a female kicking that much ass in a movie that is pretty heavily make dominated. The only low point for me, aside from the lackluster showing from Persbrandt that I discussed earlier, is Richard Armitage as Thorin. He is the central member of the dwarves and the heir to a mighty race of strong people, and I simply don’t buy it. His lines aren’t necessarily offensive in their blandness, but they are certainly not inspiring, as they rightly should be.
Overall, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a great film. It fixes many of the issues with An Unexpected Journey, has a ton of entertaining and lovable scenes, and sets up the final chapter in this trilogy very well. A combination of so many little issues hold it back however, some of which I wasn’t even able to cover here. They never happen with enough frequency or so noticeably that the film loses traction completely, but it is enough to make the film have to struggle some to keep you on the line. If you enjoyed the first film, then it’s predecessor will certainly make you grin from ear to ear on many occasions. And if you weren’t a fan last year, I still think this year’s film is enough to win you over, though you’ll need to keep an open mind to make the transition.