Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second film in an enormous trilogy dedicated to turning J.R.R. Tolkien’s shortest Middle-earth novel into the rough equivalent of his longest. The original story of a humble Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, who joined a party of glory-seeking dwarves as their unlikely burglar, was a brisk, fast-paced adventure filled with momentum, urgency, and a lot less sightseeing and world building than any of the three Lord of the Rings books that followed.
But by adding material from Tolkien’s appendix (that is to say, his supplement to the original novel, not his vestigial digestive gland), director Peter Jackson robbed the first film in the Hobbit trilogy of that sense of momentum, turning it into an episodic, leisurely and awkward start to what was supposed to be a grand old epic adventure. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, for the most part, wasn’t better for having the extra material shoehorned into it (although the Extended Edition did a better job of making the material feel warranted). An Unexpected Journey just felt long.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is also longer than the original story – or rather, the piece of the story – from which it has been adapted, but instead of feeling longer, it feels bigger. It feels richer. The new material doesn’t distract from the urgency of Tolkien’s straightforward adventure yarn, it actually contributes to its brisk pacing regardless of what it does to the film’s running time. It’s an enormous improvement on An Unexpected Journey, although it doesn’t – as some hoped it would – make the first film look any better in retrospect.
The story is confined to the middle chapters of The Hobbit and, as you’d expect, doesn’t come to a satisfying conclusion, just a big ol’ cliffhanger. So watching The Desolation of Smaug feels a lot like watching the middle part of any action movie: you’re dropped into the fun and games of the narrative, leaping from one action sequence to the next, stopping just long enough to keep track of who’s who, how they feel about what’s going on, and hint at where their journeys will conclude. Watching The Desolation of Smaug on its own would be a little like watching Raiders of the Lost Ark from the point where Marion gets kidnapped to the point where Indiana Jones says, “Truck? What truck?!” and being told you have to wait a year to see actual the truck chase and the opening of the Ark of the Covenant.
But that’s the most breathless part of the story. Bilbo (still Martin Freeman, still excellent) and the band of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshild (still Richard Armitage, still excellent) are dashing off to The Misty Mountain to reclaim their kingdom and its riches from Smaug, The Great Calamity, a.k.a. a big ass dragon. Time is against them – they literally only have a few days to get there before their mission becomes pointless – so naturally the whole world conspires to eat them, imprison them or mire them in corrupt politics courtesy of Lake-town’s dastardly master, played by Stephen Fry.
Jackson amplifies the action in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, turning a simple barrel ride into a rollicking rollercoaster battle between dwarves, orcs and a racist, younger version of Legolas from The Lord of the Rings (still Orlando Bloom, still excellent). But while that sequence turns out to be one of the action highlights of 2013, the conclusion with Smaug is amplified into such an enormous set piece that it nearly ruins one of the best parts of The Hobbit.
Yes, we meet Smaug, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, as we all knew we must (given the title and all). Yes, Bilbo wanders in on his own to confront the godlike behemoth. But no, their famous confrontation doesn’t go as Tolkien originally planned. In an effort to beef up the presence of the dwarves in what used to be Bilbo Baggins’ story, Jackson shoves half of them into the finale of The Desolation of Smaug, giving them tons to do but nothing to accomplish. It all ends as it must for the story to continue, regardless of anything the dwarves do, leaving the last half hour of the film feeling like the kind of pointless overblown filler that turned An Unexpected Journey into a sumptuous slog.
So it’s not perfect, this Desolation of Smaug. For every impressively dramatic addition to the simple tale – Kili (Aiden Turner) gets an intriguing love interest this time, in the form of a very conflicted elf – there’s something that feels out of place or repetitive. We finally get to see what Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellan) was up to when he abandoned the dwarves in the Forest of Mirkwood, but what he was up to was distractingly full of exposition and, in the end, distractingly similar to what he was up to when he abandoned Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring. Maybe that’s what Tolkien intended, but it’s not terribly fascinating.
Yet even though he airballs the finale and occasionally stumbles along the way, Peter Jackson does bring the old magic back with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. This is a gorgeous spectacle, a rousing escapade and an engrossing fantasy, except of course when it’s not. But at least this time the failings of a Hobbit movie aren’t egregious enough to call it a disappointment.