Review: 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' Entertaining But Empty

December 12, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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
Follow Jeremy on Twitter - @JeremyKKirk

Find more posts: Hobbit, Review



Seems its a Matrix Reloaded in terms of ending abruptly...its cliff hanger...and that is fine by me. I adored An Unexpected Journey and I will probably enjoy this just as much.

Xerxexx on Dec 12, 2013


The Movie was amazing Better then this review gave it!!!

Professor_Bedlam on Dec 12, 2013


I'll go see it regardless of this review (or any other review for that matter)

TheOct8pus on Dec 13, 2013


My toughts too. I personally enjoyed it even more than the first one. Only negative thing was it's ending, but we knew to expect it. And holy shit that Smaug (and Benedict) nailed me into my seat...

ProjectionistHP on Dec 13, 2013


Should have been two parts, don't get me wrong An Unexpected Journey was an enjoyable ride for me, but The Lord of The Rings books were about 400 pages each and they each got 1 movie, while The Hobbit is just about 300 pages.

Fidel Reyes on Dec 12, 2013


Agreed - should have been made into 2 films, each 3-3.5hr long. The fact things were stretched out to make a trilogy became even more painfully evident watching DoS.

VAharleywitch on Dec 13, 2013


To who ever thinks the movie will be amazing once they have seen it.. you are absolutely right. This review doesn't really do the movie justice, but to each their own I suppose. The movie was great and very enjoyable, for both the fans and the norms.

ali3000 on Dec 12, 2013


"Entertaining but empty." What the f#ck does that even mean? Go home, you're drunk.

Trey Wilson on Dec 12, 2013


I didn't see it yet and that's would be shame for me but i think 3 Hours Action Adventure is really hard to be EMPTY.

Ehsan Davodi on Dec 12, 2013


Uh, expect a lot of butt-hurt fanboys (who may or may not have seen the movie) bashing the reviewer and taking it personally..! 7/10 is not a bad rating, guys. It's realistic and honest. Respect.

DavideCoppola on Dec 13, 2013


That is guaranteed...some people just can't handle it. The Hobbit is plagued that much is obvious but I do think quite a few people go in expecting LOTR and they are met with a whimsical childrens film...Having read the novel I was not disapointed...for those who haven't it was probably a very jarring experience. I'm stoked for DoS. Kirks review is consistent with his others...respect the guys opinion but people need to decide for themselves...some are lazy though.

Xerxexx on Dec 13, 2013


Doing some unfair bashing of your own there aren't ya, considering any "butt-hurt fanboys" in these comments have been calm and respectful of the reviewer and his opinions. The Hobbit and associated stories were basically a fun aside to the "real" saga that is LotR. Any 'fanboy' who wants anything other than an entertaining but unsubstantial movie is - excuse the cliche - not a real Tolkien fan at all. And, of course, they are always more than welcome to load up the LotR DVDs for the 1000th time.

Wafffles on Dec 13, 2013


Spot on. Even the 48 FPS thing bugged me initially.

Ronnie Deori on Dec 13, 2013


I didn't really notice the 48 FPS when I saw the first movie in the theater. What did you notice about it that "bugged" you?

TheOct8pus on Dec 13, 2013


Me neither. Well, things seemed too 'manufactured'? It looked more like behind the scenes footage. I could make out individual elements involved like set pieces, lighting and actors actually acting, instead of it all merging and delivering a cinematic, other-worldly experience which it's supposed to do for me. Takes some getting used to. But CGI looks better this way. More 'real'.

Ronnie Deori on Dec 13, 2013


I'm trying to find a theater I can reasonably get to, to see it again in HFR - I didn't manage to make it to the theater last year for Hobbit 1, between my 2 jobs.

VAharleywitch on Dec 13, 2013


I felt like your review ended rather abruptly

TheOct8pus on Dec 13, 2013


I found the movie ending abruptly.

Ronnie Deori on Dec 13, 2013


This is what I expected, a great film that doesn't feel quite right since it's the middle of a story. It's how I felt about Two Towers. I loved it, but once I saw the films back to back as a whole, I loved it even more. This will probably feel similar. I'm still going to check it out in HFR.

David Diaz on Dec 13, 2013


All this talk about a middle film being "understandably weak" since it resolves bunkum. "middle films" in other trilogies are often the best films. Empire Strikes Back obviously. But even "Catching Fire" recently - what a great film! Truth is Jackson has spread the already short Hobbit novel far too thin. The story never had 3 climaxes, and he hasn't been able to fake them.

crystaltowers on Dec 13, 2013


Saw it last night during 3D IMAX double-feature. Good movie, excellent visuals - which is why I was willing to pay the $18 (normal evening fee) ticket price. Only real complaints are: the non-Legolas interest of Tauriel's storyline, and the way they ended it. Felt very "Hi, we're a middle film & know da*n well you're gonna come see part three next year".

VAharleywitch on Dec 13, 2013


I liked it, but it was a bit long and drawn out. Lake town was cool though.

Carpola on Jan 18, 2014


A great comedy full of stupid scenes with too many VFX and too few set props...nothing looks/or feels like the Middle-Earth, they try to make it bigger by slow-mo scenes but then stormtroopers come on board and it's ruined.

dawko on Jan 25, 2014

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