Review | ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ Delivers With Action and Elves

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an improvement on its predecessor An Unexpected Journey in almost every way. Not that Tolkien purists will walk away satisfied, mind you; many of the complaints leveled against the first film in Peter Jackson’s trilogy may be buoyed by the dragon-studded sequel. Still, it’s undoubtedly more enjoyable, if only on a visceral level.

The Desolation of Smaug begins right where Bilbo Baggins and the Company of Dwarves left off: on the run from danger and in pursuit of the Lonely Mountain. The White Orc Azog’s minions continue to hunt the Dwarves, all the way through the deadly forest of Mirkwood and down the river to man-dwelling Lake-town. And somewhere out there, unknown to Thorin’s traveling band, an even darker force continues to grow in power, with only Gandalf the Grey in a position to stop it.

The journey takes the Dwarves to their intended destination of Erebor, and ever closer to Thorin’s prize, the Arkenstone. But in order to reclaim the kingdom and attain the treasure he so desperately seeks, Thorin needs to find a way to overcome the slumbering sky-serpent Smaug — and he has just the Hobbit for the job.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUGA word of warning: The film hits the ground running, so much so that you’ll be lost rather quickly if the events of An Unexpected Journey aren’t fresh in your mind. Still, the pacing makes sense, as the central characters are, for the most part, all introduced by now. It remains difficult at times to keep track of who’s who among the Dwarves, but the party’s pivotal players get their time in the spotlight — most especially Kili (or Sexy Dwarf, as I like to call him), played by Aidan Turner.

Lost in the shuffle is Bilbo himself. Martin Freeman continues to do great work with the role, but there’s a greater scope this time around, a wider lens that captures more than An Unexpected Journey ever managed. As a result, Bilbo’s journey doesn’t feel as clearly defined as it did last time. But the screen time that Bilbo does have, he absolutely dominates, thanks in large to his relationship with the One Ring. In the previous film, Bilbo claimed his “precious” from Gollum, and the ramifications are very much at play in The Desolation of Smaug, leading to some fun surprises in the visual storytelling, and in Freeman’s performance.

However, as far as visibility goes, Freeman makes Ian McKellen look like air. Desolation is a letdown for Gandalf fans, as the Grey Wizard appears in only a handful of scenes, off on his own for the vast majority of the run time. That’s as it is in the source material (albeit with new scenes added, tied to the Necromancer plot pulled from Tolkien’s appendices), but it’s disappointing that Gandalf only shows up here and there for a storyline that doesn’t advance all that much from where we left it in An Unexpected Journey.

Those disappointments aside, there’s a lot to love about this film, especially when it comes to the new faces. Mikael Persbrandt plays the skin-changer Beorn; he’s only in a small portion of the movie, but he makes an impression.

smaug7The Elves, however, make an even greater impact. As Legolas, Orlando Bloom delivers his best on-screen role since, well, Legolas. It’s great to have him back, stuffing arrows in Orcs’ faces on the regular. He’s accompanied by an alluring Lee Pace as his father Thranduil, the Elvenking, as well as Tauriel, played by Lost veteran Evangeline Lilly. Some fans complained about the casting of Lilly, and groused that Tauriel doesn’t exist in the source material. For Tolkien purists, there’s likely no budging on the second issue. But as for the first? Lilly all but steals the show as Tauriel, giving Legolas a serious run for his money in the “holy wow that’s badass” department. She’s a terrific character to watch.

The humans of Lake-town come into play later in The Desolation of Smaug, led by Stephen Fry as the town’s Master, and Luke Evans as Aragorn Lite Bard the Bowman. Both actors do admirable jobs, but pale in comparison to the elegant Elves. But even they can’t hold a candle to Smaug.

It takes nearly two hours to get there, but once the titular dragon enters the picture, it’s on. Smaug is a force to be reckoned with, brought to terrifying life by Weta Workshop and actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who lent his voice and motion-capture talents to the role. He is, in a word, glorious. He slithers and slides with sinister swagger, his belly full of arrogance and fire. Cumberbatch snarls out every line of dialogue, venom in his burnt-black voice. Smaug more than earns his spot in the title, even if most of the film passes before he arrives.

Beyond the speed of the story and the characters at play, The Desolation of Smaug‘s strongest suit is the action. Jackson knows how to construct a compelling fight scene, as any Lord of the Rings fan already knows. The spirit and complexity of those epic battles are on full display here, especially during the Mirkwood portions. Admittedly, the Smaug battle gets a little long in the tooth after a while, but never at the expense of the dragon’s majesty.

Still, this film won’t win over anyone who didn’t enjoy An Unexpected Journey. Maybe it’s easier to stomach because the first 30 minutes aren’t spent on dinner at Bilbo’s house. Maybe it’s easier to love because the Mirkwood forest gets so deadly so quickly. It’s faster and flashier, no doubt about it, but it takes as many leaps from Tolkien’s original narrative as the first film. If that was an insurmountable problem for you before, well, the problem remains. But if you wish for nothing more than to meander through Middle-earth while watching some colorful characters hack and slash at each other, all set to an epic Howard Shore score, then your expectations are exactly where they should be.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens Friday.

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Comments

  • AirDave

    I enjoyed the first film. I’m looking forward to seeing this next installment.

  • JCCFP

    I guess you can count me as one of those “Tolkien purists”. I wouldn’t see this movie if someone paid me to. As soon as I heard they were introducing another female character who’s not in the books, I knew it would be totally disloyal to the masterpiece that is the book. Please, don’t waste your money on the film. Go read the book…

  • TT

    Funny. I quite like the fact that they added a much-welcome female character to this sausage fest. I wouldn’t have seen it otherwise, but I’m considering going now for that very reason.

  • d-unit

    “Maybe it’s easier to stomach because the first 30 minutes aren’t spent on dinner at Bilbo’s house.” That was the best part of the Hobbit.

    “It’s faster and flashier”
    That’s the worst part of these films. Jacksons seems to think if he crams the movies with action he’ll make Tolkien cool, when in fact he should be striving to make a movie as cool as Tolkien.

  • merwanor

    I found it very easy to love the first movie :) It is my favorite movie since Return of The King. I can’t wait for my finals to be over so I can go and see the next one.

  • John Gragg

    I read the books dozens of times, and loved the hours spent in middle earth. One would think I’d be a purest, but I accept the movies for what they are: adaptations, not regurgitations. I always get a kick when Jackson’s presentation comes very close to the scene already constructed in my mind from the books. A book will always be better than it’s movie; but that doesn’t mean one can’t enjoy it.

  • BigEZ

    My biggest issue with first one was the look of it. The 48fps filming made it look like it was videotaped on an iPod. It was too distracting for me, couldn’t get over it and it lessened the experience for me. Apparently Jackson has come out ans said that Desolation doesn’t have as much of the video feel. Hopefully.

  • Conner Garry Sennett

    I’ve already read the book.

  • Anders

    It is not disloyal to the book it is just you who doesn’t know shit about filmmaking, adaptions and the business. Go back to film class and read up on why some changes has to be made. Try to get a 200 million studiofilm greenlit without a female character and try to make a movie exactly like the book, i dare you.

  • JCCFP

    Wow! Attack people for their opinions much? I never claimed to be a filmmaker, not have I ever taken a film class. I only know the books don’t need to be improved upon. If they did, Tolkien would have written them that way. Obviously, you’ve never read the books with any depth. If you had, you would understand why the injection of a female character was not needed.

    Do you want an example of a film with virtually no female characters that was not only greenlit for a big Hollywood budget and still grossed huge numbers? How about Saving Private Ryan? How stupid would that film have been if they felt it necessary to add a female combat medic? Oh wait, they didn’t have them during the war. But we need to have one so chicks will see the movie…

    It’s amazing how people will say stuff online that they would never say to someone’s face. Think about that the next time you attack someone for their opinion online…

  • Tabularasa

    Please, The Hobbit is not a masterpiece and Tolkien isn’t the best writer in the world. Saving Private Ryan is set in World War II in the 40′s. Middle Earth is complete fantasy. So there’s actually no reason why Tolkien couldn’t put a female character in there.

    Also, if you think that she was added only so that women would see the movie, you have greatly misjudged how many females are fans and go to these movies. It’s not just women who wanted a female character. I’m a guy and I don’t want 100% of the cast to be male. That’s boring.

  • Anders

    This is not 1998, everywhere these days people scream about feminism, with all right. And the biggest difference is that Saving private ryan is based on real events, if there was female medics during the Invasion of Normandie i guess it would fit because it would be realistic.

    Is it realistic that you sit through 9 hours of cinema and see many different environments and spend time with humans,elves, more elves and dwarves and not a single female character. No it is not. Not even in Middle-earth.

    I have the read the books multiple times just in the last year and no it does not need a female character, a movie however is different. I think most people rather would see what PJ did instead of another children fantasy film like Narnia 2 & 3. (disaster)
    They did not add Tauriel for the chicks, i think they added her for the guys.. And since in the books most of the dwarves have almost no personality except for Thorin and maybe Balin and its only Thorin whose character develop through the entire book a lot of the changes made in the movie are totally necessary.

    I say what i want to say to people all the time, i have no problem with it. It is not me who is hiding his/her identity behind a nickname.

  • Christian Gibbons

    I am a tremendous fan of Tolkien, and agree that remaining loyal to the book is of paramount importance. But adding one female character does not make an entire film disloyal in that endeavor. Nor is Peter Jackson trying to “improve” upon the source material. This movie hits the ground running and has little time to establish a host of new characters. It’s the lesser of two evils. “Hmm, there are no female characters in this film.” “Okay, should we add one?” “Yes, one. Otherwise, we would take away from too much of the movie by adding multiple unnecessary characters that weren’t in the book.” That’s really all that’s going on.

  • Chuck777

    Amen to everything you said! :D

  • Chuck777

    They could have just changed the gender of some of the Dwarves, then spend the movie developing them as characters.

    Instead we were treated to a Legolas clone whose only use out of combat is to perform Arwen’s most notable action in the first LotR movie.

    She had one good scene in the entire film (her sharing that moment with Kili in prison) but outside of that she was completely unnecessary. Let’s hope film #3 gives her a more meaningful role.

  • JCCFP

    I appreciate your opinion and also your respect. The thing that made shake my head more than anything was how they chose to break up a 286 page novel into three films, yet the LOTR was only three films. Three films, one for each book. And then they take the shortest novel and break it into three films. Obviously, this was done for monetary reasons, but it also meant that Jackson was going to have to fill the films with a lot of non-source material. I literally laughed out loud in disgust when I saw Rhadagast and his Rhosgobel rabbits in the first film.

    It’s one thing to veer off course from the source material ever so slightly. It’s another thing to do it so much as to make it unrecognizable to the reader. Also, Tolkien was very careful what he did and didn’t put in his novels. He took years to write them, and he did so with great care. When you eliminate characters, or make them more or less prevalent due to budget, time constraints, or your own desire to change the film to your vision, you can ruin the interpretation. Look, I understand why he cut Tom Bombadil in the Fellowship. I felt, as a reader, that he’s an important part of the story. Was he needed to advance the story as a whole? Probably not. Eliminating Glorfindel in place of Arwen was unforgivable to me. Once you know his backstory you realize just how important he really was to the story.

  • Tabularasa

    You kind of missed the point on Tauriel’s character if you thought her being the healer was her only point. Legolas follows his father’s command, while Tauriel rebels. She is the push for him to realize that the evil that lurks outside their walls is important. That saving other people are important. Clearly, it’s this progression of the character that makes him so involved come Fellowship. She is Legolas’ emotional push that changes him from a man like his father to the man we know in Fellowship. His journey is not over, it will continue through There & Back Again. While some of the romance with Kili irked me a bit, it wasn’t too intrusive and it clearly wasn’t her only point in the movie at all.

  • nikolias

    I agree with absolutely everything you have said. I finally saw the first one at the 6th attempt, I just couldn’t get past Radaghast. I find that I want to watch the new one but I really just don’t.