‘The Hobbit’: Smaug ‘em If You Got ‘em (Movie Review)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: 3 ½ out of 5
Bilbo Baggins: Truly songs and tales fall utterly short of your enormity, O Smaug the Stupendous...
Despite this second installment of The Hobbit films being a grand adventure, with lots of excitement and visuals, at this point I think I know what the inherent problem is with this second Tolkien trilogy. For all the fun this movie wants its audience to have, no one in these films seems to be having much fun. Save for some one-liners from the various dwarfs, whose names I don’t know, almost everyone is gruff and serious all the time. I am not saying everyone should be laughing and smiling, but it comes down to the stakes at hand, and compared to the apocalyptic nature of The Lord of the Rings, the plot of the Hobbit films is about as serious as making it to a relative’s BBQ on time. Given how thin some of these characters are, spending nine hours with this story could be aided by a bit more charm to go with the heaps of CGI. With that being said, The Desolation of Smaug is a lot of the same, with the adventure starting midway through, allowing for less setup. There are plenty of thrills, action, and neat visuals to be found, but I am curious if the next chapter will make this unexpected trilogy something worth being turned into three separate films.
On the plus side, one of my biggest issues with An Unexpected Journey is addressed right away in The Desolation of Smaug. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) was so irritating in the first film, as he had one note to play and that was always be grumpy and jerky to Bilbo. This film begins with a flashback to the first meeting between him and Gandalf (Ian McKellen). It provides a bit of exposition, but also shades the character in a certain light that informs the character during the rest of this film. Given that turning The Hobbit book into three films stretches these characters thin in terms of personality, it is helpful to at least try and delve into one of these main dwarves and give him something of an arc to play into. Given that a few of these dwarves manage to have a lot to do, I guess I am only more thankful, despite not really knowing what to call most of them.
This time around, along with Thorin, there is a whole subplot revolving around Kili (Aidan Turner), a dwarf who manages to fall for a she-elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). There is also plenty of Balin (Ken Stott), seemingly the oldest of the dwarves, who provides plenty of sage advice for the group. This is due to the fact that Gandalf splits from the rest of the team early on, in order to pursue possible evil elsewhere. Having these different dwarves participate in the story is helpful enough, as it is nice to learn about the rest of this team that we are supposed to be supporting in their quest to take back their home. An aspect that works very well for The Lord of The Rings trilogy is that we found all of the fellowship to be very likable characters, with defining characteristics, and had a chance to actually know all of their names. That remains an issue with these Hobbit films, but at least some attempts are being made.
Putting that aside, excess is still a big part of these films as well, which we are now treated to in the form of new characters coming along and having plenty of screentime. Some seem more important than others, even if the arc of their characters is being telegraphed from miles away. Luke Evans is solid in the role of a man named Bard, who helps the dwarves at one point and has ancestors that suggest greater things in store for his future, were he to involve himself in the right way. The Tauriel character, who is apparently not a character from the books at all, is a decent way to create a storyline for the other featured characters to interact with, but it also makes me wonder how compact these films could have been made (like 2 instead of 3), were she and LOTR All-Star Legolas (Orlando Bloom) to have been dropped from the film entirely. That said, Evangeline Lilly provides a strong female character to a film that is light on females to begin with, so there’s that.
Other characters pop in as well, including Lee Pace as The Elvenking, Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-town, and Mikael Persbrandt as a skin-changer, among others. Again, most of these actors are fine, but while Fry, as ridiculous as he is, at least seems to be one of the few having fun, everyone else here is so curt and distanced from the fun that should be had in what is supposed to be a more light-hearted journey. Given how brutal some of the violence is in this film, let alone some of the scary sights to be seen presumably by the youngsters looking forward to seeing The Hobbit on the big screen, having more than just birds sitting on the top of a wizard's head could have gone a long way.
Fortunately director Peter Jackson seems to be more in control of what he is trying to deliver on this time around. While The Desolation of Smaug is less about having a clean story to present and more about lining up a lot of different pieces on the same board for an ultimate end game, the film was less arduous a task to sit through in certain ways. While not necessarily faster-paced, the film has a lot of the heavy-lifting out of the way. There is a lot more action this time around, which does not automatically make everything better, but given how inessential characterization is for these films, having something exciting on screen is at least one way to get past that. I cannot imagine what more will be added in the eventual Extended Edition of this film, as it already feel like a more accessible film can be made but taking out a good chunk of the runtime, rather than adding to it, but at least there is no shortage of creative action on display, let alone various settings and accomplishments in production design.
It is amazing how I have hardly mentioned Bilbo Baggins yet, but then again this film puts him pretty much in the backseat, up until the end. There is a level of involvement that Bilbo has in leading others to the next big set piece, but this film ends up spending a lot of time with the humans and elves this time around as well. The effectiveness of this balance is debatable, but the climax of the film certainly feels up to the task of delivering on the film’s title. Once again, like the Gollum sequence in An Unexpected Journey, Martin Freeman is given the job of engaging with a creature and making a conversation involving a lot of double talk enjoyable, and he pulls it off.
Smaug is obviously a big deal. This is a large dragon, the key antagonist related to the main quest at hand, and a deadly force to be reckoned with. Voiced and performed via motion-capture by Benedict Cumberbatch, the work done to fully realize this dragon on screen is quite impressive and the one thing about the film that made the use of 48 FPS enjoyable. Seeing great dragons in films seems like such a rare thing, so I am happy that Jackson and company were able to deliver in all the ways that they do with this character, who is far more verbose than I was expecting. The only thing I am left wondering is if there is more purpose to Smaug, or if he really is just some dragon jerk that stole from others.
I did like this film and look forward to seeing how this story concludes. I have previously made note of my admiration for the LOTR trilogy, despite not having a huge attachment to it, so I can only go so far in praising these Hobbit films that are very obviously inferior (though not by that much). Jackson has maybe done a better job this time around in delivering a rollicking adventure film, even if I don’t care much for a majority of the characters. The fact that Smaug was a truly impressive aspect of the film certainly bodes well for making it into a memorable creation and aspect of this series of films. I may only have similar regard for a few things about the rest of this film, but I am at least happy with not being too disgruntled about this long journey that is closer to its end than its beginning.
Thorin Oakenshield: If this is to end in fire, then we will all burn together!