Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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If there was skepticism back when Peter Jackson and Warner Brothers announced that J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit would be adapted into two feature length films, it transformed into outright cynicism when the film would be expanded further into three features. Yes, the primary reason above all is financial, but its hard to argue against Jackson and company’s love for the material. On hand to emblazen the world, The Desolation of Smaug may not be without some lingering flaws, but on the whole its a remarkably paced adventure, further stressing moral stakes, developing its characters, and delivering what might be the greatest dragon in film history.

In comparison to the four Middle-Earth films that preceded it, The Desolation of Smaug commences on a fairly subdued note. Its prologue opens on Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) in the village of Bree, as the wandering dwarf finds himself face to face with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) for the first time. In the dank and dingy tavern of The Prancing Pony, Gandalf persuades Thorin to go on the quest for Erebor and reclaim the Arkenstone, a gem that could unite the seven dwarf kingdoms. This is perhaps the only major breath of exposition that The Desolation of Smaug affords, because immediately afterward, the film starts at the sprint and rarely lets up. Picking up where the first film left off, Gandalf, Bilbo (Martin Freeman), and the company of thirteen dwarves are on the run from Azog and his horde of orcs. Their continuing travels take them to locales such as the web hewn and hallucinatory forest of Mirkwood, where King Thranduil (Lee Pace) resides. It is here that Jackson and the writers part from the book, bringing back Legolas (Orlando Bloom) as well as introducing a female elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a completely new character to the Tolkien world. Their relationship gives the film a romantic angle, further complicated when Tauriel catches the fancy of Kili (Aidan Turner). This subplot is well intended, but its fairly one dimensional and film’s weakest element, only likely to carry significant payoff in the third film.

The company also make their way to Laketown, a near Venetian village lying in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain. Brought there by the enigmatic Bard the bowman (Luke Evans), the dwarves find themselves in an unexpected moral quandary. Thorin’s quest always carried an aura of nobility to it, as An Unexpected Journey was thematically in tune with reclaiming a home of one’s own. In The Desolation of Smaug, that notion becomes complicated, as reclaiming Erebor would mean destroying the dragon slumbering within the mountain. In the chance that the dragon escapes, Laketown could come to the same fiery fate that befell the city of Dale. These types of questions provide The Desolation of Smaug with compelling internal conflict that extends past the occasional battle scene. Further, the film hints at geopolitical issues, as Thranduil in Mirkwood remains indifferent to what occurs beyond the borders of his lands, despite the fact that his forests are consistently under siege. This growing evil is explored as Gandalf visits the abandoned fortress of Dol Goldur, whose habitant Necromancer is massing an army. These deviations from the source text of The Hobbit provide the film with higher stakes and carry interesting insight to the inspiration for the novel itself, considering that Tolkien had written the book on the eve of the second World War. The growing dread of war in the late 1930’s is quite palpable here.

Of course, one would be amiss to neglect mentioning the gargantuan baddie at the center of the film, and oh goodness gracious is he glorious. Given malevolent timbre by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is a true feat of design and execution, but what truly makes him one of the all time greats is his personality. Crafty and cunning, its clear that Smaug is his own master and its a true joy seeing him play a game of wits with Bilbo. Martin Freeman is once again superb, and though it may appear that he gets less to do in this film, its frankly the exact opposite. Bilbo manages to prove his worth to the company time and again in unexpected fashion, and Freeman adds shades of darkness underneath as the hobbit is increasingly drawn to that band of gold he found in the goblin tunnels. Richard Armitage continues to develop the stubborn Thorin in subtle ways, for as he comes closer to reclaiming his homeland, he puts his comrades at further risk. There are even scenes where is willing to leave wounded comrades behind for the sake of reaching the mountain. He’s not the easiest character to like, but when he finally takes the first step into the secret passage of Erebor, its hard not to feel for the dwarf who mourns his lost kingdom. Of all the newcomers, Luke Evans as Bard leaves the strongest impression, a man who has long been oppressed and spied upon in his own hometown, and whose very life is now on the line while sheltering the visiting dwarves.

The biggest advantage that The Desolation of Smaug has is that it is not beholden to going over the same tracks that An Unexpected Journey inevitably tread. Thus, Jackson is able to explore previously unseen corners of Middle-Earth, and is able to instill a newfound sense of wonder and mystery. With the thick and teeming forest of Mirkwood, the ailing splendor of Laketown, and certainly in the vast, treasure filled halls of Erebor, there is a genuine sense of history imbued in the production design. There can be occasional hiccups to the pacing, but the inclusion of multiple narrative threads keep the film chugging along and rarely allow for boredom. As ever, Jackson remains a master of conceiving and structuring action sequences, of which there are many. The best of these is an astounding escape by Bilbo and the dwarves from Mirkwood by hopping into a load of barrels and traveling downriver with both elves and orcs on their tails. Alternating from expansive wide shots and even point of view moments as the dwarves get soaked, the extensive scene showcases Jackson’s great instincts of spatial orientation and maintaining visual energy. Howard Shore continues to be an invaluable asset to the sonic atmosphere of Middle Earth, providing memorable themes to the new locations and characters, particularly capturing the feistiness of Tauriel. As usual, Weta Digital’s work is unmatched, reaching a peak at the devastating reveal of the dragon rising from below his loot.

By the time The Desolation of Smaug arrives at its scorching conclusion, the film dangles from the edge of a precipice like a Saturday morning serial, with eager setup for the final film. Thus far, its been valuable to evaluate The Hobbit films on their own terms and intentions. This has always been a tale of adventure, and on that mark alone, Jackson has undoubtedly produced exceptional entertainment. But what is most worthwhile about the film is how the filmmakers have largely made good on their promise on enriching a relatively short novel. Granted, for some this may read as an indulgence, but with complex themes and deepening characters, The Desolation of Smaug hits home more often that not, remaining a cut above many big budget spectacles that pass for entertainment.

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~ by romancinema on December 13, 2013.

One Response to “Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

  1. I just want them to get the next installment over with, and be done with this whole unneeded trilogy. Seriously, that’s all I want. Good review.

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