The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review – Middle Earth, Middle Third

Director: Peter Jackson 

Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro (screenplay), J. R. R. Tolkien (novel)

Stars: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom

Release date: December 13th, 2013

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Countries: New Zealand, USA

Running time: 161 minutes



Best part: The barrel sequence.

Worst part: The dodgy CGI.

Despite the obvious flaws, Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated Hobbit trilogy is an easy target. Criticised for its story-telling issues, its multitude of characters, and the 48 frames-per-second debacle, this series still hasn’t been given a fair chance. Buried under hype, directorial power, and desperate marketing ploys (looking at you, Air New Zealand!), it’s becoming increasingly difficult to judge these instalments as single entities. These movies, innocently, reach out to fan boys and average filmgoers alike. So, like this series’ lead character, why not give something grandiose and enthralling a chance to succeed? The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, though inconsistent, swiftly soars above the already enjoyable original.

Martin Freeman.

To elaborate on these points, all modern blockbusters suffer from overhype and exhaustive pre-and-post-release critical backlash. Audiences are more willing to criticise a big-budget fantasy flick than an independent romantic dramedy. With ‘perfect’ movies impossible to craft, let’s judge movies like The Desolation of Smaug for what they are. With enlightening performances, engaging action sequences, and a straight-faced facade, this fantasy-epic lives up to expectations. Despite Jackson’s overt self-indulgence and excessiveness, his adaptations stand the test of time and honour J.R.R. Tolkien’s influential legacy. However, whilst crafting this prequel trilogy’s unique identity, Jackson inadvisably stretches each instalment until breaking point. Here, the narrative picks up immediately after the events of An Unexpected Journey. With burglar and trustworthy Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) keeping watch over the horizon, his 13 Dwarf companions, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), scour the landscape for hidden passages and safe places. Despite Gandalf the Grey(Ian McKellen)’s unabashed admiration, Bilbo is unsure of his responsibilities on this all-important journey. After being rescued by Skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), the group heads for Mirkwood to continue their trek toward the Lonely Mountain. With the Dwarves eager to retake their homeland from vicious and greedy dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), the group comes across the spiders and Elves inhabiting this treacherous forest. Disdained by Elf-king Thranduil (Lee Pace), Thorin must find courage before continuing this quest. Fortunately, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and Bard (Luke Evans) seek to aid this commendable band of heroes.

Ian McKellen.

Like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and The Hunger Games: Catching FireThe Desolation of Smaug, despite bridging the first and final instalments, seeks to craft a recognisable identity and several commendable moments. Fortunately, this sequel successfully links this trilogy to the Lord of the Rings saga. Around every corner, references and titbits sit proudly on display. Jackson, blinded by immense talent, is infatuated with his over-long and bombastic creations. Despite my previous statements, I’ll admit that dividing one book into three epic movies is a nonsensical and preposterous idea. This decision’s immense consequences are immanently noticeable. From the compelling prologue onward, the bloated story becomes chaotic. Here, Jackson introduces several potentially intriguing sub-plots and character arcs. Adapting the book’s middle third and appendices to fit into this sprawling middle instalment, Jackson’s toy-box-like mind goes overboard. With several weird, vicious, and engaging characters hurriedly introduced, the first third will leave series newcomers scratching their heads. Don’t get me wrong; Jackson is indeed a transformative and imaginative filmmaker. However, there’s a specific reason why the appendices are wholly separated from Tolkien’s other Middle Earth adventures. Jackson, taking control of the book series’ every intricacy, awkwardly wedges plot-strands, prophecies, and set pieces together throughout The Desolation of Smaug‘s exhaustive 2hr 45min run-time. In addition, Jackson and co. invent characters, obstacles, and plot-threads at their own volition. This method brashly dilutes the original material’s charming and engaging identity. However, despite the narrative knots, the sequel’s boisterous charm, gripping chase-movie structure, and visual splendour distract from several story inconsistencies and directorial foibles. Thanks to an action-packed first third, the original’s pacing and tempo issues are fixed. Following the LOTR trilogy and An Unexpected Journey‘s familiar structures, this repetitive sequel removes suspense and intrigue from this influential franchise.

Richard Armitage & the Dwarves.

With The Desolation of Smaug specifically served as an action-adventure flick and Boxing Day release, these movies identify themselves as LOTR prequels more so than children’s book adaptations. Looking up to the original trilogy’s influential story-telling tropes and immaculate action set pieces, this trilogy’s reach has already exceeded its grasp. Despite the first third’s exciting moments, the movie stops dead during the second act. Here, the exciting chase sequences transition into comedic hijinks, dialogue sequences, and complex exposition. After the group is smuggled into Lake-town, we are introduced to the city’s economic and political structures. Transitioning from action to drama, the political debates and hierarchal systems place pointless conflicts on top of the group’s urgent quest. Thankfully, Jackson’s visual flourishes and attention to detail elevate this convoluted fantasy-adventure. Throwing more orcs, men, and elves into the on-coming war for Middle Earth, this sequel continually ups the ante. Fixing this series’ pressing tonal shifts and pacing flaws, the action set pieces expand this wondrous and enrapturing universe. Following the bear attack, the spider sequence is a visceral and glorious thrill-ride. Jackson, known to inject disgusting creepy-crawlies into extraordinary tales (King Kong), uses zany surprises and jump-scares to push this sequence into overdrive. However, the movie’s stand out set piece is the group’s barrel escape down a dangerous river system. This enlightening sequence throws orcs, dwarves, and elves into an ingenious battle. With distinctive fighting styles defining certain characters, stakes are raised throughout this set piece. In addition, Bilbo and Smaug’s climactic battle of wits gleefully caps off this exhaustive instalment. The creature designs, thanks to visual effects company WETA Digital, are all top notch. Providing sensory thrills and gripping surprises, the spiders, orcs, bears, and wargs are breath-taking and confronting creations.

“I will not die like this, clawing for life…If this is to end in fire, then we will all burn together!” (Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug).

Orlando Bloom.

Despite the endless shots of New Zealand’s mountainous scenery, the CGI vastly overshadows the practical effects. Rushing through the post-production stage, Jackson haphazardly throws several unrefined effects into his finished product. For a multi-million-dollar production, short cuts like this aren’t advisable. The original trilogy’s stirling practical effects are inexplicably replaced with green screens and Playstation-2-level digital creations. Sadly, several locations, action set pieces, and characters appear noticeably artificial. Despite these issues, the comedic hijinks lighten the sickeningly dark tone for brief moments. Slapstick gags and witty one-liners highlight the absurdities embedded in these pressing situations. Our heroes, unlike those of most modern fantasy-epics, are defined by complex and likeable personalities. Despite taking a back seat in this instalment, Bilbo is still a cheekily engaging and determined lead character. Tasked with a specific purpose, Bilbo becomes a wise and courageous individual. Here, his conflict with the ring is pushed to the forefront. Providing dry wit for this fan-favourite character, Freeman grows into this all-encompassing role. Facing off against his Sherlock co-star, Freeman provides a charismatic and idiosyncratic performance. Gleefully, Cumberbatch, as the powerful and intelligent antagonist, steals his scenes. Delivering conquering vocal and physical mannerisms for this fascinating character, he relishes in motion capture technology’s over-whelming potential. Despite Gandalf’s insufficient sub-pot, McKellen delivers another engaging performance and elevates certain scenes. Unfortunately, only two dwarves are given definitive personalities. Despite Armitage’s intriguing portrayal, his character mirrors Aragorn to a fault. However, the elf characters are charismatic. Bloom and Lilly’s screen presences boost significant plot-lines.

With love triangles, action sequences, comedic hijinks, and character arcs filling this instalment’s extensive run-time, The Desolation of Smaug is a significant improvement over the original. With Bilbo stepping aside, the other characters are given valuable room to breathe. Jackson, despite the overt infatuation with his own material, confidently delivers an exhilarating and gripping roller-coaster ride. With The Hobbit: There and Back Again linking both trilogies, a shorter instalment may hold viewer interest.

Verdict: A hearty, enjoyable yet convoluted sequel.

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