FEB 1, 2014 SCREENING: THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)
It’s been a while since I’ve done a review of a movie I just screened this week, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone: blog reviews about “The Hobbit trilogy” without having a third movie, and watch a movie this week. The result are a retro review on the animated Hobbit, a retro review on last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and a contemporary review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which won’t even be out on DVD until March. Three Hobbits for the price of one! So let’s finish off with a brief look at Desolation of Smaug.
For starters, this is awkward. Not the movie, but my take on the direction of Jackson’s Hobbit films. The first film was too harshly criticized in my opinion, especially since it was the Tolkien adaptation I enjoyed the most out of all the “Middle Earth” films Jackson had done previously (The Desolation of Smaug marks his fifth journey into that world). The second film got much better reviews… Jackson had “proven” he hadn’t lost his touch after Lord of the Rings and give audiences a film that was worthy of its title and much more exciting and interesting than An Unexpected Journey, or so they claimed. My reaction was the opposite. I think Desolation of Smaug is a step down from An Unexpected Journey, and may be the weakest of Jackson’s five Middle Earth films.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked this movie. I’m not about to compare it to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, as bashers of An Unexpected Journey insisted on doing. It’s a good film. It’s just not up to the level of Jackson’s other Middle Earth films. Peter Jackson and Middle Earth is like pizza and sex. Even when it’s bad… it’s still pretty darn good.
The main problem is that Desolation of Smaug suffers from “middle chapter” syndrome. Jackson’s second Lord of the Rings film (The Two Towers) did as well, and like this movie, I’d rank it the weakest of The Lord of the Rings movies. Both of them have the problem that they don’t introduce the audience is an interesting story and entice us to want more, or conclude that thrilling story with a bang, they just take us through the middle of it and nothing is resolved. However, The Two Towers worked a bit better because it was a much closer adaptation to the source material, and followed the novel “The Two Towers” more or less faithfully. Of course, there’s no novel named “Desolation of Smaug”. It adapts bits and pieces of chapters in the middle of The Hobbit, when most of the important stuff happened in the previous movie or the next one.
Unlike An Unexpected Journey, where I found most of the “supplemental” material trying to expand the film to three hours was good enjoyable in its own right, I didn’t see much of that here. To pad the story, Legolas is added from The Lord of the Rings and plays a supporting role in this film. He was never meant to be part of The Hobbit, and while the actor’s chemistry with the rest of the cast is good and the script uses him in a way that doesn’t feel forced, he still is not important to the story and I wish Peter Jackson would just cut all his scenes for DVD release because they make the film drag on longer than necessary. Radagast the Brown returns in this film as one of Gandalf’s fellow wizards. We were introduced to him in An Unexpected Journey, and his unnecessary presence there, for all the mockery it got on the internet, was memorable. Here, he accompanies Gandalf in a quest about the Necromancer, and his presence isn’t really needed, nor is it memorable.
Not surprisingly, the best parts of the film were the ones that were essential to the book: Bilbo meeting the dragon Smaug and watching him escape and wreak havoc (hence the title), and the scenes in Lake-town as well as the dwarfs escape in barrels. A wonderfully ominous line from the film trailer (“That, my boy, was a dragon”) appears in the film, and the context in which its used does indeed pay off. Having recently reviewed numerous other movies about “dragons” from folklore, I found Smaug to easily be one of the best depictions I’ve seen on screen. Benedict Cumberbatch voices Smaug and truly makes him a sly, clever, vindictive, and nerve-racking deadly threat. The design for the dragon was perfect as well, and captured an extremely powerful and deadly evil dragon, while staying faithful to Tolkien’s intent and harkening back to both the novel, and the earlier animated adaptation of the story. It was the perfect marriage of voice actor and special effects.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a worthy addition to the JRR Tolkien film adaptations, but one that doesn’t work as a stand alone entry. Lots of action, lots of top notch acting and effects, but ultimately little pays off in the film’s three hour running time. Hurry up and give us “There and Back Again”, Peter Jackson. Your attempt at stretching a short little novel into three massive movies is wearing thin.
** ½ out of ****