The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro. Allegedly based on The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mikael Persbrandt, Sylvester McCoy, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage
Padding The Hobbit out to 3 movies causes this middle entry to feel bloated and unfocused, with more than a few absurd sequences managing to jack up the running time to almost unbearable lengths.
In his continued attempt to take back the dwarven homeland, the exhiled King Thorin (Richard Armitage) finds himself and his gang of dwarves pursued by Orcs, spiders, and other dangers. After they enter Mirkwood and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) leaves to do battle with Sauron, the group is captured by the dangerous Wood Elves who are led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace) and his henchmen Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). The group manages to escape and make their way to Laketown with the aid of the Bard (Luke Evans) whose ancestor once fought the dragon Smaug, but not without one of their own being gravely injured. After resting in Lake Town, they continue on to the Misty Mountain and the final battle with the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Throughout it all, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) manages to make a few cameo appearances here and there.
The Hobbit who? One of the consequences of expanding Tolkien's novel to three films is that an abundance of additional material has managed to find itself onto the big screen. While some of it is effective, a great deal more of it feels like it would have been questionable to be shown even in an uncut/extended edition on home video. Worse, the result of so much additional material causes Bilbo to come across as a supporting character in a film where title supposedly refers to him. Without an effective character arc, he frequently feels like a hairy footed deus ex machina who shows up to help the rest of the group out of whatever jam they happen to be in.
When the filmmakers pull from Tolkien's work to create additional material, they are on somewhat solid ground. It's when they stray from what Tolkien created that everything comes apart. I did not mind the addition of Tauriel, who is effectively played by Evangeline Lily channeling Liv Tyler, but the love triangle feels forced and the possibility of a relationship between her and one of Thorin's dwarves strains the films' already shaky credibility.
Then there is the more buffoonish elements, such as the barrel chase sequence following the groups escape from the Wood Elves that simply don't work. The heavier reliance here on CGI (compared to the Lord of the Rings films) is a mistake, transferring many of the battles into what feel like extended demos for a video game. I get that the films are aiming for a lighter tone then Lord of the Rings but I do not recall as many extended fight sequences with orcs in the novel as there are in the film.
I would never suggest that anything with Stephen Fry is completely useless, but the sub-plot with the Lake Town Master and his henchmen nipping at the heels of the Bard and the main protagonists could have been cut without too much being lost. Even more problematic, these two characters feel like their aping the relationship between Sauromon and Wormtongue from the original films. Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens far too often. Not only does most of the material feel overstretched, but stale to boot.
The climactic battle between Smaug and Bilbo starts out effectively before descending into the over top shenanigans that plague the rest of film. When it's just Bilbo and Smaug, the film manages to capture that ethereal sense of danger and wonder so desperately missing from everything that came before. The thing is, once the dwarves show up, it becomes a ridiculous special effects extravaganza that serves little purpose besides lowering the unemployment rate for computer animators.
The parallels between the dwarven culture and the history of the Hebrew peoplem - being exhiled from their homeland and other cultural motifs - are still present in the story but not a lot of attention is paid to it. Unlike all of the previous Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson, there are no real queer subtexts to speak of. I'm reviewing this pretty much because I'm a completest. However, on a more interesting note, the first person of color shows her face in Lake Town. Brief, but it's there and it now feels much less likely that Middle Earth will have the KKK show up and declare that their quest for racial purity has been successful.
At the end of the day, this is not the worst possible adaptation of The Hobbit but there is a sense that not only have the filmmakers sprained themselves trying to stretch the material out to the lengths that they did here. The material setting up the main Lord of the Rings Films, such as showing Bilbo starting to be corrupted by the one ring, is mostly effective. It's just that too often that The Hobbit films feel like their mimicking them, rather than standing on the two large hairy feet of Bilbo Baggins.
Not worth enduring the entirely desolate running length if one is merely a casual fan of the series, although the climactic scenes with Smaug might make it worthwhile for the die hards.
2 and 1/2 stars out of 4
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