Review: 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' Entertaining But Empty
by Jeremy Kirk
December 12, 2013
The ballad of Bilbo Baggins continues in The Desolation of Smaug, director Peter Jackson's second of three films in his adaptation of The Hobbit. After five films spanning 12 years, Jackson's take on J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth is as elaborate as ever, more so given those 12 years in filmmaking technologies and their development. Jackson's world is pretty, vibrant, covered in all the colors imaginable and even a few more. It's enough to enrapture even the most cynical viewer with all the Elvish, Dwarvish, and Hobbitish excitement going on. But a passion has disappeared from revisiting Jackson's take on this world, and when the adventures this time around pass by, the emptiness they leave behind speaks volumes. More below!
It can't just be that our senses have grown weary of traveling back to this Middle-earth every so often. The adventures Tolkien set down and Jackson's execution of them are epic, a word so many use far too often but one that packs the necessary punch when appropriate. Jackson's Middle-earth is epic, the monuments and creatures Tolkien described in his novels brought to breathtaking reality. Thanks, all that technology and development I mentioned just a bit ago.
The mass of digital creations Jackson brings to the table in The Desolation of Smaug is nothing new. If the last 12 years have told us anything about the way Peter Jackson creates worlds, it's that bigger is always better. More, not less, is always more. One can't help but be reminded by the way George Lucas began world-building in his own prequels, and it isn't long before a comparison on both The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars franchises begins to emerge.
But that's another argument for another day. Lucas built the Star Wars universe from the ground up, while Jackson and his team of screenwriters - his partner Fran Walsh and Guillermo del Toro among them - are adapting from Tolkien's novel. On the case of The Desolation of Smaug's story alone, it's difficult to give anything that begins mid-story and ends mid-story anything more than a casual, approving nod.
The film begins as Bilbo Baggins, bravest little Hobbit of them all, nears the end of his journey with a band 13 Dwarves on a mission to reclaim their kingdom from the dragon Smaug. Bilbo, played again by the enormously talented Martin Freeman, finds comfort on this journey in the magical ring he stole from Gollum in the first film, An Unexpected Journey. But deadly spiders, dangerous Wood-elves - who aren't too fond of Dwarves - and, yes, a big-ass dragon are all in store for the party's near future. Also, Gandalf, as he's so often wont to do, treks off on his own quest, a magical addition to Jackson's expansion of this novel.
Much has been argued about Jackson's bloating of the story to push this franchise to three more films. The ridiculousness that The Hobbit even needs to be three films aside, The Desolation of Smaug has some of the best momentum this entire franchise has experienced. Those spiders, Elves, and a slapstick barrel ride down a river keeps the kid-friendly adventures from An Unexpected Journey going across this film's first half.
It's the latter half to The Desolation of Smaug that Jackson's colors subdue, and he begins the franchise's move back to the dark, sharp edges that littered his first trilogy. The last half of The Desolation of Smaug never engulfs the audience in story and creation quite like The Lord of the Rings, but it's a nice change of things from the bubbly, Saturday morning antics of this trilogy's first film.
That last half bounces between three stories; the awesome encounter between the band of Dwarves and Smaug, an Elf-versus-Orc battle in a town nearby, and Gandalf's quest to uncover much darker forces at work. Much of this comes off as ancillary. What Gandalf uncovers is another way for these two trilogies to be connected, and the love triangle Jackson and crew inject into the Wood-elf sub-plot is laughable. It does give Orlando Bloom, returning as Legolas, something to do besides looking badass while shooting arrows.
On the forefront, however, Bilbo's first meeting with Smaug and the ensuing excitement makes The Desolation of Smaug worthwhile with edge-of-your-seat adventure. With no Gollum to blow audiences away in the amazing, technological achievement department, Smaug steps in to do that very job perfectly. It's not the size of the creature that makes him so awe-inspiring, it's the way Jackson and the digital artists at Weta continue to make these creatures actually look and feel like performances.
Just as Andy Serkis and his voice and performance came through in the creation of Gollum - as well as King Kong - so too does the exceptional menace and chilling playfulness in Benedict Cumberbatch's work here. His voice as Smaug is low and mean, but the way in which he almost delivers his lines sing-songy is perfect for a beast who is evidently playing with his food. Smaug toys with Bilbo as well as the Dwarves, his rage growing as the film progresses, and Cumberbatch's ability to create a presence within this immaculate, CG creation is incredible.
It helps that Freeman fills the role of Bilbo, selling the size of the creature by the quiver of his voice when he remarks on the beast's "enormity." Freeman leads a solid charge of a cast with Richard Armitage finding solid ground as Thorin, leader of the band of Dwarves. A fine co-lead to Freeman's fish-out-of-water Bilbo, Thorin's quest to reclaim the throne that belongs to him and the sadness that has come before it is buried deep within the character's, and actor's, eyes. Even with the smallness of his character's stature, Armitage convinces us of Thorin's strength and the many levels in which that strength is found in him.
The rest of the cast is as solid, Ian McKellen's Gandalf just as powerful in voice and beard as ever. The actors playing the 13 dwarves are just as varied as the character's themselves, the difficulty in remembering who plays which dwarf and what dwarf name goes with what dwarf character still a problem in Jackson's films. Still, they all do mighty fine work as hard to discern from one another as they are.
Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, and Luke Evans round out the cast of newcomers, Lilly and Pace wearing their Elvish ears with natural pixiness. Lilly fills a gap in that love triangle Jackson and crew developed to expand the story, and though her character is one created for the films, the actress' energy makes her a welcome addition. Evans plays Bard the Bowman, a character whose importance fans of Tolkien's novel will recognize. The actor is suitable enough in The Desolation of Smaug, his real time to shine apparently forthcoming in the third film.
Which brings us to The Hobbit: There and Back Again and this emptiness left in the wake of The Desolation of Smaug. The major issue here isn't the pacing or the way this story has bloated in Jackson's adaptations. It's that there are little-to-no resolutions at all at the end of these films to keep us engaged until the next, big adventure. Even in a single story, there are moments of accomplishment, something of a climax that makes it feel like an all-inclusive film rather than another step along a much larger journey.
Even The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring had a nice end-point, tragic and emotional as it was. But The Desolation of Smaug ends with neither fanfare nor mourning, and the abruptness with which Jackson cuts his film to black resonates. It isn't just a feeling of wanting to see more. It's a feeling of being cheated of any kind of complete, cinematic experience. The Desolation of Smaug is an entertaining part of a larger, three-piece picture, and as engaging and enjoyable as it is, the absence of those other parts has never been this noticeable. Until the ballad of Bilbo Baggins reaches its end, we're only left to hold onto these pretty pictures. Thanks, cinematic technology and development, and Weta.
Jeremy's Rating: 7 out of 10
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