Never has ‘desolation’ been so fun…to a degree.
When The Fellowship of the Ring was released in 2001, it blew everyone away. Audiences had never before seen a fantasy epic of that calibur, never mind one with such genuine emotional weight. The success of the first film set up eager anticipation for the 2002 middle chapter, The Two Towers. Aided by pitch perfect trailers and, crucially, a strong-enough middle part story arc, The Two Towers was a great success. Who can forget the incredible battle at Helm’s Deep!? Ten years later, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was released to wide anticipation but ended up disappointing audiences. There are many reasons why this happened — some reasons fall on the filmmakers’ shoulders and poor editing choices, while other reasons involve misunderstanding (or ignorance of) the differences between the original LOTR and Hobbit source materials. Nevertheless, the sub-par (but in my personal opinion, still quite fun) first Hobbit movie ensured that we all just wanted one primary thing in the follow-up — to be a better movie. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug meets, if not exceeds, our lackluster expectations. It remains flawed, lacking the character depth and story arcs we’ve come to expect from director Peter Jackson’s numerous cinematic journeys into Middle Earth. However, it doesn’t lag like the first film. It begins at a brisk pace and ends at an even faster pace, teasing us for the third and final chapter. And in between, we’re treated to a limited but welcome small dose of romance and emotional depth, as well as a handful of incredible action sequences. Even if it’s a minimal reward, we can finally start to care about these characters!
We begin with a brief jump back in time to a moment captured in one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s supplemental stories in which Gandalf (reprised by the irreplaceable Sir Ian McKellen) meets with Dwarf would-be-king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to discuss the journey the latter must take to reclaim the ancient Dwarf kingdom beneath the Lonely Mountain. After their discussion, we rejoin the 13 dwarves along with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf doing what they were doing when we left them at the end of An Unexpected Journey…that is, to say, journeying. The next 2 hrs. 4o min contains more perilous journeying, from the dark depths of the spooky spider-infested Mirkwood forest, to the prison cells of the woodland elves, to the treasure-filled caves of the Dwarfs former home where Smaug, the huge dignified fire-breathing dragon, now rules. The goal — To recover the Arkenstone and reclaim…blah blah blah… basically, the exact same objective spelled out in the first movie.
As a middle chapter, The Desolation of Smaug does a fairly poor job of advancing the story. We’re introduced to a handful of new characters, some of which were not featured in the book, The Hobbit, including Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reprising his star-making role) and a new warrior she-elf, Tauriel (the very Elvish looking Evangeline Lilly). Die hard fans may gasp at such a bold addition to the renowned story, but nonetheless, the added feminine touch is quite welcome. Plus, she’s kind of a badass. That being said, Tauriel is also asked to maneuver through a love triangle involving Legolas and Kili (the handsome, slightly taller dwarf played by Aidan Turner). It’s nice to have a little bit of romance to add a pinch of emotional spice to the steady flow of action sequences. It’s within a few of these romantic dealings that we get a few of the more LOTR-reminiscent moments. After all, LOTR really nailed the small moments (thank you, Elijah Wood’s eyebrows!)
The various creatures threatening the core group’s journey are thrilling and make for a visual feast. I have intense arachn0phobia, but even I still enjoyed the frightening and frantic encounter with the group of Mirkwood spiders. Is there a word for a group of spiders? I hope not because that should never happen, ever. The exciting chase in barrels down the river from a pursuing group of orcs is one of the most exciting action sequences of the year, featuring ridiculously swift choreography and some cheer-worthy moments, complements of Legolas and Tauriel. This chase drags on for a bit too long, however, as all the action does in Smaug, with a reliance on CG characters and environments that border on looking silly. I’m not entirely sure why Peter Jackson decided to go with rendering most of everything on a computer instead of the traditional sets, makeup, and models, but the latter group of effects is sorely missed. When we see a costumed actor playing an orc being shot, or one orc in particular who is captured, its more believable… and more gruesome.
The encounter with Smaug is the focal point of the film, and though it takes roughly two hours to get to that moment, it’s well worth the wait. Voiced by so-hot-right-now British thespian Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is the most fascinating and well devised dragon in film history (yes, I’m definitely considering the Sean Connery-voiced one in Dragonheart). Smaug’s interaction with Bilbo is witty and spine tingling, similar to the memorable interactions between Gollum and himself/Sméagol in The Two Towers and Bilbo and Gollum in An Unexpected Journey. In the new film’s built-up confrontation, Martin Freeman is finally able to really work with the character of Bilbo, who has sadly been reduced to one of many “leads” due to the stretching of the story. Freeman is an excellent actor that manages to make every small opportunity here work to his advantage.
Yet, again, beneath all the CG spectacle is a story that should not have been spread this thin across three movies, equalling around nine hours. Smaug is fun but it’s all a tease to get to the final battle…which will take place in December 2014. In the meantime, we must live with what the Hollywood studios have decided to give us. Smaug is barrels of fun (pun intended), but its quite obvious at the end of the second installment that this story was divided into three parts to be a bigger cash cow than it would’ve been with one movie or two. At the end of Smaug, I thought, ‘wow, that was a grand ole’ time! But are the characters ANY different now than how they were at the start? Are they any further along their journey than they were at the beginning?’ The answer to theses questions is a reluctant ‘not really… but did you see those spiders!…and those barrels!…and that dragon!’ The LOTR trilogy worked as three movies because it was three books, and hefty books, to say the least. The Hobbit trilogy MUST try to match the robust character depth, emotional gravitas, and epic splendor of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It won’t succeed because the original book, written first, never had to. Inevitably, comparisons will be made and, currently, The Hobbit is far behind and trying desperately to catch up. The good news is that The Hobbit is now mid-sprint, rather than casually plodding.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens in Bay Area theaters today, December 13th 2013.