Welcome back to war-ravaged Middle Earth. It’s a more thrilling place than last we left it.
The first chapter in Peter Jackson's Hobbit saga was the result of its own unexpected journey, becoming the first of three films to adapt the modest novel rather than the originally slated two-movie arc. And it showed, with some scenes laboring on well past their purpose, even as the film overall was a worthy – if less substantial – prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Excess can still be felt in this second chapter, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but the bloat is gone and it clocks in as the shortest of Jackson's five Middle Earth movies so far at 161 minutes (with just a 2 ½-hour narrative from opening title to eternal credit roll (after which, FYI, no extra bonus scene plays)). It's still Lord of the Rings-lite, though darker than its Hobbit predecessor, nevertheless standing out as a premium Hollywood entertainment that can still teach other blockbuster lit-franchises a thing or two.
So let's see, where'd we leave off? Gandalf is leading the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and a band of dwarves down from the Misty Mountains. Deep inside Mount Erebor lies the Arkenstone, a jewel that will give Thorin Oakenshield the right to lay claim to his title as Dwarf King of the Lonely Mountain and bestow its endless riches upon all the lands. But first they must face great peril in the dark forest of Mirkwood before ultimately facing the Dragon of Legend himself – the indestructible Smaug – who hoards the dwarf treasures deep inside the bosom of Erebor. I may have missed some geeky details, but that's the gist.
Along the way there's the standard talk of war, grave danger, forces building, evil rising, darkness descending... quests, honor, prophecies and fate... making bold introductions of the Son of So-and-So being from the land of Such-and-Such, with resolute declarations of fighting to the death, and the fear of all being lost. It's boilerplate fantasy genre in many respects, but that's exactly what people expect and what Jackson delivers yet again.
Desolation of Smaug doesn't drag on too long between battles of various scale, all choreographed and produced with thrilling (and violent) precision. A fast-paced acrobatic battle down a steep roaring river is a particular highlight – even as the familiar aesthetic of blue, copper, and gray makes the film a bit too dark for its own good. Any added value of 3D gets lost in this murky, muted palette. Nevertheless, there is spectacle here that doesn't disappoint, capped off by Smaug when he's finally revealed in the film's final act. The dragon is as impressive and detailed a CGI creature as we've seen, and Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness) licks his chops with every menacingly delivered line.
The plot is much more propulsive than it was in An Unexpected Journey, which reflected the novel's episodic nature, and Jackson expanded it with even more episodes from Tolkien's Middle Earth-and-Beyond bible, The Silmarillion. The Desolation of Smaug, by contrast, is built upon the architecture of a true screenplay from start to finish, and rather than pulling from other Tolkien sources Jackson simply invents new characters (cf. Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel) and subplots that prove a better fit for his cinematic adaptation. Indeed, this would more aptly be dubbed Peter Jackson's The Hobbit than J.R.R. Tolkien's, but Jackson's fidelity to the source's tone in addition to Lord of the Rings' accumulated goodwill allow Jackson to take the liberties he does – and the movie is better for it.
We see an example right off the bat: rather than being reintroduced to Tolkien's titular hobbit Bilbo, The Desolation of Smaug opens with a flashback to the first-ever meeting between Gandalf and Thorin. From there, this saga remains as much Thorin's quest as it does Bilbo's tale, intentionally mirroring the successful dual focus between Frodo and Aragorn that Jackson utilized in Lord of the Rings. Between Thorin and many others, Bilbo often gets lost in the mix, although his centrality within this grand epic reemerges in the final act. And if the overall scope ever falls victim to filler (like the much-maligned dinner sequence of Hobbit 1) it's in the extended imprisonment of the dwarves by elves in the film's first hour. But even that, thanks to intentional character development, never drags.
The most rewarding of Jackson's additions is the aforementioned Tauriel, a female elf warrior toward whom Legolas (a Lord of the Rings transfer, not a Hobbit original) has affection, though due to Elvenking (and father to Legolas) Thranduil's cold disapproval, that love remains unrequited. Those feelings (and subsequent action) are further complicated when chemistry sparks between Tauriel and the dwarf Kili. Lilly is no stranger to love triangles (see TV's Lost), and anchors the one here between the two polar-opposite men. Lily also shines as a warrior – both in spirit and athleticism – fueled by courage and conviction, not reckless emotion. This subplot also serves Legolas well (Orlando Bloom, returning in his career-best role), helping substantiate his established hatred of dwarves prior to his eventual friendship with Gimli in The Lord of the Rings.
The core ensemble remains a stalwart cast, even if their chemistry never reaches the complex levels and dynamics we witnessed between Frodo, Samwise, and Aragorn (though that has more to do with Rings' inherent deeper resonance). Martin Freeman (The World's End) continues to personify Bilbo's internal conflicts of fear and courage, of sacrifice and selfishness, in very compelling ways. Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield still has that masculine gravitas of a king you'd follow into battle, and Ian McKellen's Gandalf remains the definitive moral center.
The Desolation of Smaug leaves us with a cliffhanger as evil and darkness are unleashed. And for as familiar as this franchise now feels after 15 hours (or close to 20 when you factor in the extended versions), knowing we're on the cusp of the finale is a little bittersweet. Yes, it's time for this too-heavy CGI spectacle to draw to a close, but it's unlikely we'll ever see anything else quite like it again.
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Drinking in a pub, smoking of pipes – all brief and casual.
- Language/Profanity: None.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Brief moment of flirting.
- Violence/Other: Fantasy violence, but still intense at times. Many fight and battle scenes involving swords, bows-and-arrows. Arrows going into heads (some close point-blank distance), chests, etc. Swords being used to cut, stab, and kill humans and other creatures on multiple occasions, and in three instances decapitate. Impalings. Frightening creatures, including giant spiders attacking, Orcs, and others. Smaug the dragon can be scary and intimidating. Magic and sorcery are used throughout, at times for good but often with a dark and oppressive feel. Evil and dark spirits lurk.
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