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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O'Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mikael Persbrandt, Sylvester McCoy, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images)

Running Time: 2:41

Release Date: 12/13/13


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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 13, 2013

It's now perfectly clear what director/co-writer Peter Jackson and his screenwriting team of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro are doing with J.R.R. Tolkien's work. This is not just an adaptation of The Hobbit, the beloved—even by those who don't care for the linguistic exercises and heavy mythology that make up its three-part sequel—novel about a cautious halfling who finds courage in a series of adventures, but also a prequel to Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films. The plot of the book, of course, has little to do with the subsequent tale (Tolkien made cosmetic changes to the novel to align it better with the sequel—nothing too drastic), but The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug goes out of its way to connect these long-winded cinematic adaptations to the ones that preceded it.

This is an incredibly busy film, with a three-way narrative that follows the plot of Tolkien's book, begins the process of revealing the central villain that will put all of Middle-earth in jeopardy, and, for some reason, inserts a romantic triangle between an ancillary character, a character from the previous films who has no role in the actual story, and another who is the creation of the screenwriters. Just as in the first installment of this series, these additions are jarring, and there are even more of them in this chapter.

It's a shame, too, because what Jackson does with the central storyline, featuring Bilbo (Martin Freeman)—now a supporting character in his own tale—and a group of dwarves as they journey closer to their former kingdom (currently occupied by a fearsome dragon), is quite effective here. Jackson knows how to implant an outlandish action sequence into material that seems to avoid such flights of violent fancy. There's an invigorating scene in which the dwarves and their hobbit companion escape from imprisonment by riding in barrels down a rushing river as orcs and elves battle along the riverbanks. The sequence is fluid and full of imaginative staging, such as when that spry elven hero Legolas (Orlando Bloom) balances on the heads of two floating dwarves in order to shoot orcs with his bow and, later, uses the dwarves' craniums as steps to cross from one side of the river to the other.

The story picks up with Bilbo, the dwarves, and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) trying to evade the still-pursuing orcs by seeking shelter with a "skin-changer" named Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), who changes forms between a giant bear and a slightly less hairy man, and eventually fleeing into a dangerous forest, where the air causes hallucinations, big spiders ensnare trespassers, and elves aren't too happy with unexpected company. Gandalf sets out on his own (again) before the trip into the woods in order to discover if there is some unseen enemy—perhaps the Enemy—at play behind the strange happenings in Middle-earth.

The side plots have Gandalf investigating a gathering of orcs at the ruins of once-great, still-evil stronghold and the elves Legolas and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) following the dwarf party after they escape from Legolas' father Thranduil's (Lee Pace) realm. The scenes with Gandalf's reconnaissance mission eventually lead to a visually striking confrontation with a foe that takes the form of a slithery shadow, but until that point, he—along with the characters in the elf subplot—has the repetitive task of speaking in foreboding tones about an approaching war. They are at least more diverse than his extracurricular scenes of lengthy councils in the first film, and they make much more sense to the screenwriters' bigger-picture arc than the awkward romance that develops between Tauriel and dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) under the ethereally jealous eyes of Legolas.

Even with everything else happening, though, we start to get at least a slightly better picture of a few of the dwarves. Thorin (Richard Armitage), the leader and heir to the throne, has some menace to him, as he seems ready to use Bilbo—even to the hobbit's death—in order to regain power. Balin (Ken Stott), the eldest, stands out from the clan as the only one with a genuine sense of compassion for others, which comes in handy when the dwarves try to sneak into Lake-town—literally a town floating on a lake in a neat bit of design—with the help of a merchant named Bard (Luke Evans).

Just like the first film, the climax of this one involves Bilbo trying to outwit an inhuman, potentially deadly creature. Before, it was the tricky Gollum, and here, it's the massive dragon Smaug (a motion-captured Benedict Cumberbatch—he of the mighty baritone), whom Bilbo grants a variety of appropriately imposing titles (my favorite: "Smaug, the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities"). Smaug is more than just a source of fiery death; it's a vain, taunting character with feline movements and an attitude of amusement toward the tiny thing that has stupidly dared into its lair. It says something about the uniqueness of Tolkien's creation that the dialogue between Bilbo the dragon is more exciting the extensive chase that follows.

There's the rub. It's telling that the two strongest scenes of this series thus far have been dialogues that stick to Tolkien's text (the Smaug scene here and the game of riddles in the first film). By the time The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which—it must be grudgingly admitted—is a better and more enjoyable entry than its predecessor, comes to its anticlimactic finale/setup for the concluding installment of this series, we are primarily left wondering why The Hobbit alone isn't enough for Jackson and company.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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