After a year of pondering and endless pessimism about how part two of a makeshift Middle-Earth saga will turn out, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is finally here. But did it pull off becoming a better entry in a trilogy that many see as unnecessary?
Well, it depends on which part of the movie you’re talking about. The strengths and weaknesses of DOS (let’s just call it that for brevity’s sake) flop back and forth on screen like a wet dwarf in a barrel.
After marching halfway to the mountain of Erebor, hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage), and 11 other dwarves must continue their journey and slay the dragon that stole their home. That’s basically it for plot. Besides a couple story points, the heroes move from set piece to set piece as they travel from point A to point B.
Director Peter Jackson continues to do a great job bringing Middle-Earth to life while adding new parts of the world that still feel like a cohesive part of the whole. It’s a joy simply to be back in the world and see its characters take part in an adventure. That feeling alone boosts the enjoyment of the movie, even when some of its parts do not quite succeed.
Nearly every single actor (more on that later) brings their A game when it comes to breathing his or her character into life. Of course, McKellan is once again the perfect blend of humorous and grim as Gandalf, given what little time he has on screen. Freeman and Armitage continue to make their characters feel real. Since it is their story arcs and relationship that forms the center of The Hobbit. It strengthens the movie and should help the more emotional moments of the third film. However, being a middle film in a trilogy that was never designed that way means DOS doesn’t really have a three-act structure, keeping the characters from having solid growth from beginning to end.
It’s obvious from the opening minutes that Peter Jackson designed DOS to be a much more action-oriented film that the first installment. Bilbo, Gandalf, and the 12 dwarves bound from battle to battle with only small breathers in between. And while the action helps keep the movie running at a fast clip – one minute fighting spiders, the next fighting orcs – it often leans toward the excessive.
It may be because of the film’s reliance on CGI rather than practical effects. While The Lord of the Rings movies exist in a world of somewhat-heightened reality, those original films subsisted on action that felt real. Mostly because it was actual people bashing each other in front of the camera, with CGI only used for those worlds and creatures that could not be made by hand.
In DOS and The Hobbit Trilogy as a whole, CGI is used for everything from dwarves to orcs to bridges to sunsets and more. No proof of CGI obsession is greater than the fact that this film can’t seem to go 10 minutes without launching a dwarf across the screen.
While the film as a whole is lighter and feels like more of a fairytale than its predecessors, moments like Bomber in a barrel rolling along a riverbank and taking out dozens of orcs begin to stretch the bounds of credulity. I can only see a dwarf fall from a great height, bounce off countless ledges, and dust himself off so many times before it gets ridiculous. It also makes this particular band of heroes sometimes seem like the most incompetent and luckiest bunch since Jar Jar Binks and company.
But the CGI is not always a liability. The great dragon Smaug is a wonderful creation that is only possible through digital effects. What his design lacks in originality, it makes up for in detail. Every scale, tooth, and flame is rendered with loving care. Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice work for the villain also lends him a solid mix of menace and wit to create a strong threat. However, the encounters with the beast fall in line with the rest of the movie: set pieces that just keep going and going. It’s well done, but the quality does not necessarily justify the length of time spent in battle.
These lengthy battle scenes would be more enjoyable if the time spent between them was used more wisely. Much has been made of expanding this originally two-part series into three in order to include content from J.R.R. Tolkein’s appendices. Among other subjects, these expounded upon Gandolf’s encounter with the evil Necromancer and other aspects of this huge world. But at most 15 minutes are spent with the wizard during this 2 hour 41 minute film.
Let’s start with the good. Luke Evans’ Bard the Bowman is top notch. He’s convincing and likable in the role, crafting the book’s small character into a well-rounded person and this trilogy’s equivalent of Aragorn. When he’s on screen you don’t mind that the actual stars of this story are temporarily sidelined.
OK, that’s it for the good.
DOS sees a sizable chunk of its run time devoted to two characters who never needed to be in this story: the original elf character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the returning archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom). It doesn’t matter that they weren’t in the book. This complaint isn’t coming from a purist standpoint. What does matter is that their sole purpose is to add 30 minutes of action and a half-baked love triangle with the dwarf Kili – the most handsome of the dwarvish company.
There’s no need for this love triangle. Tauriel, Legolas, and Kili are all undercooked characters, so why should I care? It takes away time from other, more interesting story aspects and characters. Try making William Kircher’s brain-damaged Bifur the third piece of that romance. Now that would be interesting!
Speaking of elves, let me take a minute to spotlight the worst acting I have ever seen in a Lord of the Rings: Lee Pace as the Elven King Thranduil. Wow! Pace gives a manic, scenery chewing, over-the-top, unaware performance that borders on the uncomfortable during his conversation with Armitage’s Thorin. More than any CGI element or strange story choice, this took me out of the film the most. No wonder he didn’t speak a single line in the first film. I dread his return in The Hobbit: There and Back Again.
Even with a sizable run time, there’s little devoted to the dwarves outside of Thorin and a couple others. For the most part, they seem like recognizable extras. Which is a shame, since they each have fun personalities and their actors do well with what little attention they receive. Yes, most of the dwarves have little personality in the original book and are rather interchangeable. But this works in the context of Tolkein’s novel. Failing to address this issue in the film is not justified and becomes a glaring liability on the screen. There’s no way every character that has been introduced will be rounded out by the time There and Back Again hits theaters in a year.
As for the ending, without spoiling anything, it’s a mixed bag. Yes, there is a gigantic action set piece that closes out the film in fiery, explosive fashion. However, it is somewhat strange that such a long and intense fight should end in such an abrupt cliffhanger. It leaves you wanting more but also somewhat unsatisfied. Combine it with several scenes meant to set up the beginning of the next film and multiple storylines put on pause and it gives the ending a somewhat off-balance feel.
Who knows what to expect with There and Back Again a year away? With only about 60 page left of the book to cover (excluding the wild card that is appendices), anything could happen in this most unpredictable and uneven of trilogies.