Review – Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug” Expands Tolkien’s World with Mixed Results
After kicking off with the serviceable but underwhelming The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter’s Jackson’s trilogy continues with The Desolation of Smaug, a superior, albeit still flawed sequel that does not approach Lord of the Rings’ magnificence. Smaug kicks off with one of its few scenes driven exclusively by dialogue, in which Gandalf the Gray enlists dwarven would-be king Thorin Oakenshield to liberate the kingdom of Erabor from the clutches of the dragon Smaug. To stretch out this simple premise, conceived by J.R.R. Tolkien as the foundation for one brief novel, into three lengthy films, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Torro, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens had to extrapolate and make up a lot of new material.
Much of this comes in the form of characters drawn from other Tolkien works including LoTR, making for some serious nostalgia. Actors new and old do a fine job; remarkably, there isn’t a single bad performance in a cast of Iluvatar (look it up) knows how many. Martin Freeman ably captures the awkward, yet increasingly heroic charm of the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and Richard Armitage exudes brooding nobility as Thorin Oakenshield. LoTR alumni Ian McKellan and Orlando Bloom, portraying the wizard Gandalf and the elf Legolas respectively, bring workmanlike, if not particularly inspired, competence to their roles. Gandalf gets a healthy portion of screen time in a side plot investigating the mysterious Necromancer, who has cast a creeping shadow over Middle Earth. Bloom, back for the first time since Return of the King, mostly just massacres orcs and gazes longingly at Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a female elven warrior made up for the film, caught up in a tedious love triangle involving Legolas and the abnormally-handsome dwarf Killi (Aidan Turner). Oddly, Jackson devotes more time to developing Tauriel than the film’s ostensibly key players. Bloom’s dreamboat elf is, frankly, a bit of a dick at this point in his life, in thrall to his grumpy father Thranduil (Lee Pace), whose sole purpose in life seems to be keeping the wood elves isolated from Middle Earth affairs. Gradually, his heroic and selfless nature emerges over the course of the film. Finally, the latter part of the film introduces us to Dale, a dilapidated dock town in perilous proximity to Erabor.
If you think this narrative sounds a little overstuffed, you’re right. Developing so many characters would require less time spent on action set pieces, which Jackson is unwilling to sacrifice. The worst victim of this lack of balance is the film’s titular Hobbit and so-called protagonist Bilbo Baggins. When Smaug declares that Gandalf and the dwarves are only using Bilbo as a tool, the dragon could just as well be referring to the filmmakers. Bilbo seems to exist exclusively to extricate his mostly interchangeable dwarven buddies from trouble. There is one tantalizing scene foreshadowing Bilbo’s corruption by the famous one ring, but nothing comes of it, at least in this installment. For that matter, not much comes of anything in Desolation, which, lacking a narrative backbone, often feels more like a disjointed roller coaster through a series of epic set pieces than a coherent story. The film’s ending, in particular, is the worst kind of cliffhanger, interrupting the narrative flow without any discernible dramatic purpose, perhaps to provide a set piece for its content-starved sequel, The Hobbit: There and Back Again. The Hobbit/Dwarves vs. Dragon battle preceding the anticlimax is a mind-blowing blockbuster thrill but, like the rest of the movie, not a particularly substantive one. Smaug (voiced by an unrecognizable Benedict Cumberbatch) is beautifully rendered, a technological and aesthetic wonder that alone is worth the price of admission. His only flaw is that he blabs incessantly, mostly spouting generic “bad guy” talk. A dragon of few words would have made for a more threatening villain. Meanwhile, Bilbo and the dwarves systematically attempt every conceivable way to kill a dragon, putting LoTR’s once-peerless visuals to shame in the process.
It’s a shame that Desolation lacks the narrative focus and characterization to back up its stunning design and cinematography. It is also disappointing that despite so much of the film’s 3+ hours, we learn so little about the central characters. A lack of sufficient context and thematic depth robs the meticulously choreographed action scenes and majestic set pieces of impact. Peter Jackson and company obviously set out to put together a box office smash, and they have succeeded, but at the expense of other essential qualities. Yet, despite its flaws, Desolation of Smaug is an above-average action movie more than worth its price of admission (and in Imax, that is quite steep). The script gestures at substance, but is never truly realized despite Smaug’s Oscar-worthy visuals. It suffers greatly in comparison to the vastly superior LoTR trilogy, which achieved cinematic greatness by balancing its blockbuster elements with thematic depth and a compelling cast of rich characters. But hey, at least The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a good movie, unlike most prequels (I’m looking at you, Star Wars) and for that, we fanboys should be eternally grateful.