[Review] - The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

I have long asserted that the Desolation of Smaug would be the best of the Hobbit films, and I feel vindicated (despite the final film being a year off) that I was right. If there is a success to be celebrated here, it is that the majority of the flaws of last years Journey are absent, making it the outlier of the series in terms of the overwhelming underwhelmingness of itself. Smaug is a taunt, fun, rollicking adventure that, despite it's three hour run time, never feels bloated and lacks (with the exception of one scene) the obvious signs of scene that should have been cut for the extended edition.

In fact, by the end of it, with an unexpected and very traditional sort of cliffhanger, you very much don't want it to end. At this time last year, Journey left me cold and unattracted to the next in the series. Smaug makes me clamor to see There and Back Again, in the way we felt a decade ago when we first traveled to Middle Earth.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that one have one beard to feed.

Smaug is not a perfect movie, but none of the previous installments of Jackson's Tolkien adaptations were perfect movies. What separates Smaug from it's immediate predecessor is that Journey was an incredibly flawed film, partly by necessity and partly by Jackson's misinterpretation about what the audience needed or wanted. Happily, he's back in fine form with Smaug, and less of the film's weaknesses can be found in the writing, in the direction or in the editing.

The biggest weakness of the Hobbit series continues to be technical. As with Journey, many of the visual effects appear to be the same ten year old effects that amazed us in the Lord of the Rings, but are very dated now. There are marked improvements since last year. The Azog and his orc minions look less obviously cartoonish, having had a glaze of texture applied to them that allow them to fall closer to Gollum or the Avenger's Hulk. The physics engine have also been improved, so that when Legolas does his trademark combat gymnastics he looks less like a ragdoll and more like a person. And it is obvious that no time or energy was wasted on Smaug himself, but we'll get to him in due course. All of this is balanced by incidents of sheer ridiculousness. The molten gold was laughably bad, looking more like something from the nineties. And, unlike a decade ago when forced perspective was used for the various height differences, now much of that has been replaced by digital manipulation, which is obvious, and more often than not eye lines do not match (a particular example appears during Thranduil's interrogation of Thorin).

The acting too remains a quibble. Part of what made Lord of the Rings so successful was the utter earnestness by which the cast took their roles. Here, the result vary from actor to actor and from scene to scene. Too often does the scenery get chewed on (Lee Pace in particular was distractingly "large" in his role as the Elvish King), or a line is delivered with too much enthusiasm. Part of this might comes from bad takes being used, part might be down to dialogue being over written. But the cast seems to be pretty evenly split between those that honestly believe they are in Middle Earth (Ian McKellen, as always, with Luke Evans and Ken Stott right behind him) and those that are very aware they are not.

But the successes far outweigh the deficits here, and what makes it hard to judge the film on it's own is, unlike any of those that came before it, it isn't a film on it's own. Each of the Lord of the Rings films, while part of a larger story, had it's own beginning, middle and end. Smaug, as a consequence of being the second and first part of a planned two films, isn't its own thing. It starts, straight away, without reintroductions or slowly bringing us back into the tale. And it ends very abruptly in a place I was not expecting, but was really the only place it could have ended to leave enough for the final film (and it'll be a hell of a place to pick up a year from now). The biggest consequence of this is that the film, picking up amidst the action, and leaving off there as well, never gives itself a chance to be dull. Considering how very long and very action-less Journey was, it is an excellent compliment that this film lacks quite moments, and those that there are don't last long.

The film is also very swift, without the lingering that made Journey seem to take longer than it was. The dwarves immediately find themselves in the company of Beorn, who is only just introduced before he's left behind (Jackson promises more of him in the extended version, and in the next film) and the action moves along to Mirkwood. Spiders follow, then Elves, and a climactic traveling battle sequence involving barrels and rapids. It makes a certain sense that these elements would move quickly, as originally they came at the tail end of the first of two films, meaning the barrel escape sequence would have ended the film (it was very obvious that the dwarves meeting Bard was the original cut point of the two films). Here, as the first act of this film, they serve the film well to get the audience's attention, to hold it and not bore them with detail or trivia. By the time the dwarves enter Lake-town, we're ready for things to dial back, but our attention is held.

The world of men also introduce us to a host of new characters that will go on to play larger parts in the third film, chief among them Bard, played by Luke Evans, and the Master of Lake-town, played with disdainful aplomb by Stephen Fry. Both are underdeveloped characters in the original book, allotted brief introductions, character establishing actions, and legacies in the way traditional of folk tales. The film fleshes them out considerably, though Fry you suspect has either been left more for next time, or will see an increase in the extended edition. Bard is a particular challenge, considering that he is the proto-Aragorn, and that the reluctant hero arc has already been played out by that latter character. By making Bard a more desperate man, with a family to protect and a living to irk out, while also seeding him with a descenter's voice, they make him more than would could have been just a watered down version of Viggo's character. This is man who doesn't have a destiny, just a baneful linage, and too strong a moral code.

Also new to the world (literally) is Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, the much hyped up original creation (which, considering this is the fifth film and roughly fifteenth hour of the series is remarkable that there hasn't been one before now) of Jackson's, and she's pretty damned fun. Lilly's accent isn't the most convincing thing in the world, and her Elvish is a bit phonetic, but Tauriel I suspect will have many fans when all is said and done (she'll at least be a popular cosplay option). She's action heavy and feisty, moral where Elves are usually cold, and insatiably curious, which leads her to form a connection with Kili (Aidan Turner).

And then there is the dragon. I like the idea that the focal point of each of these films has been Bilbo having a conversation with someone, and while I struggle to think who he might talk to in the third, his interaction with Smaug is every bit as good as his previous confab with Gollum. The dialogue was lifted almost entirely from the book, with little embellishments here and there to make it more organic. And the design exceeded my expectations, with the full might and wonder of Smaug being literally awesome. They've went with a two legged, bat inspired design, keeping it in line with the description of Beowulf's dragon, from which he is directly inspired. Benedict Cumberbatch turns out a fantastic performance, both vocally, and whatever of his movements they used in the mo-cap to animate him. And his and Martin Freeman's interaction was one of the most believable of the films so far (it helps that they have established chemistry).

It's in finally encountering the dragon that two things happen. One, wisely, Jackson broke with the novel by splitting the dwarves into two groups. One going on to the mountain, the others staying behind at Lake-town. The second, and less beneficial, the dragon scene extends considerably beyond the novel's conversation. As spectacular as this climatic and extended dragon siege sequence is, it was the only point in the film that I said to myself "and here is another set piece." Until then, the extravagances of Smaug felt purposeful. Even the barrel chase, which went on longer then it should have been, felt like it played a part in the story. It didn't add anything to the over all story, and was just there for the largess of the spectacle. The entire dragon sequence seemed like it could have been - should have been - an add in for the extended edition, because it works just as well had Smaug burst forth from the mountain after devising that the men of Lake-town had some connection to Bilbo during their conversation. Even more so, in fact, as at that moment he was angry at them. After the attack in the forge, his ire should be focused entirely on the dwarves which are still inside the mountain.

So, what does that leave Jackson to finish with the third film? Considering that Lake-town currently is inhabited by a quarter of the dwarf group, two Elves, and Bard's family, the immanent attack on Lake-town will not be a brief affair. The forces of Dol Guldur are marching North, starting the massing of the Battle of Five Armies, of which four more armies must gather. And Gandalf is still at the mercy of the Necromancer, whose identity as Sauron has been entirely confirmed. With Radagast running to inform the White Council of his "investigation," there is a considerable amount of material left to resolve in the final chapter.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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