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Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Premise: The second installment of a three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves continue their quest toward Erebor and confront the dragon Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch).  

What Works: The Desolation of Smaug is an improvement over the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey. The previous installment was burdened by exposition, some of it unnecessary, and after taking a long time to get going the rest of the film came up lacking, partly because it repeated so many of the visuals and plot beats of The Fellowship of the Ring. Having established the major characters in the first part and setting them on their journey, The Desolation of Smaug is able to move a lot faster and the picture is nearly constant action. The most impressive aspects of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies has been the magnitude of the productions, the level of detail, and the filmmaking craft in each picture. In many film franchises the quality of the work tends to degrade over the course of the series, but whatever the problems with The Hobbit prequels, Jackson and his filmmaking crew cannot be accused of lazy work. These pictures are well shot and the costuming and set design are credible; unlike some fantasy pictures that take the art direction a little too far, The Desolation of Smaug and other movies in this series have a lived-in look that recalls the original Star Wars. Peter Jackson is also very good at putting on a show and as a spectacle The Desolation of Smaug has some fun action scenes that hold up with most anything in the other Middle Earth films. Especially notable are the scenes of Smaug the dragon. Talking creatures are tough to do convincingly but Smaug works on screen. He is more than a monster and the combination of Benedict Cumberbatch’s vocal performance with the visual nuances of the computer generated creature make the dragon’s confrontation with Bilbo the most (and maybe the only) memorable aspect of the film.

What Doesn’t: The Desolation of Smaug has critical problems and most of those problems hinge on its shortcomings as the middle installment of a trilogy. The great middle films, such as The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight, deepen the characters, escalate the conflict, and expand the story palette. Although The Desolation of Smaug does broaden the scope of the story, it does not develop its characters nor does it raise the stakes of the outcome. In An Unexpected Journey Bilbo had to prove his mettle and find his courage but in The Desolation of Smaug none of the characters demonstrate any growth. The main dramatic thrust of this film, the dwarves’ quest toward Erebor, does not escalate and the urgency withers over the course of the film. There is an attempt to raise the stakes, as Gandalf (Ian McKellen) investigates the Necromancer, but this does not tie into the quest of Bilbo and the dwarves. For that matter, not much happens in the course of the film at all. The entire story of The Desolation of Smaug comes down to three events: the dwarves are captured and escape from the elves, Gandalf investigates the Necromancer, and Bilbo confronts Smaug. Those three events are spread out over a film that runs nearly three hours in length and the movie is padded with chases and fights. But as much as Peter Jackson throws himself into creating spectacular action scenes, these sequences frequently go on for too long and little or nothing is accomplished by them. The overextended action scenes and the failure of the movie to develop its characters or raise the stakes of the story results in a film that lacks tension. Nowhere is this more apparent than when the movie gets to its requisite cliffhanger ending. Middle chapters of trilogies usually conclude with an open ending but the lack of any resolution leaves the viewer unfulfilled instead of looking forward to the final instalment.

Bottom Line: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a strange sequel because it is both better and worse than its predecessor. For general audiences looking for popcorn entertainment, the film is sufficient and it gives viewers their money’s worth. But in terms of storytelling and within the bigger context of The Hobbit trilogy and the Middle Earth film series, the picture is lacking, in some ways even more so than An Unexpected Journey.

Episode: #470 (December 22, 2013)