The short review: In spite of a few missteps, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a marked improvement over its predecessor in nearly every way, and a great reason to return to Middle Earth.
The long review: I saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in 3D in 24 FPS. Also, I was wearing a light jacket. Now that we have those pesky questions out of the way, let’s get into it, shall we?
Continuing where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey left off, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug finds Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), and a brigade of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), their rightful king, continuing their epic quest to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. Only one problem – it’s guarded by a ferocious dragon with a Scrooge McDuckian cache of coinage, the titular Smaug (voiced to a tee by Benedict Cumberbatch).
Wheras An Unexpected Journey got too bogged down in Middle Earth minutiae, there isn’t much narrative hand-holding in The Desolation of Smaug; save for one flashback of Gandalf and Thorin’s first encounter, the casual viewer is pretty much on his or her own during the quest for the Arkenstone (you know, the Durin family heirloom?), which might be a subtle way of putting the viewer in Bilbo’s headspace, but I doubt it. Nonetheless, the grand chase continues, and takes us from the house of were-bear Beorn to the halls of the Woodland Elves to Laketown and beyond, playing out in a series of increasingly over-the-top action set pieces.
Jackson has an “everything and the kitchen sink” mentality when it comes to storytelling, it seems. One of the oddest choices Jackson makes is relegating Bilbo largely to the background of the story, which wouldn’t really be such a big deal if he weren’t the titular character. Thorin Oakenshield, by and large, is our protagonist for the middle chapter of Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy, but when you spend more time discussing the finer points of local Laketown politics and the socioeconomic climate rather than developing your title character, eyebrows will be raised.
As a lifelong fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, I was profoundly disappointed with Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It felt like a pale imitation of what made The Lord of the Rings trilogy so special. Gone was the sense of action and adventure, gone were the fevered, pitched battles between sprawling armies, gone was the unique, charismatic cast of characters. Instead, we got a 12 minute song about dinner, a series of increasingly annoying supporting characters, a visual palette so muddy it didn’t much matter what they were doing, and a debate over frame rates that will make your eyes glaze over faster than the safety presentation at the beginning of a 12 hour flight.
Perhaps it’s an overabundance of CGI or maybe we’re just numb to imagination these days, but Middle Earth seems to have lost an awful lot of its magic. Sure, there’s still spells aplenty, necromancers on the loose, and more fantastical creatures than in several Monster Manuals, but by and large, the tactile sensation of being transported to Middle Earth is gone. With Lord of the Rings, I felt as though I could actually go to Middle Earth and explore it; with The Hobbit films – especially The Desolation of Smaug – I feel like I’m watching an E3 trailer for a video game I’d really like to play. Maybe something by Quantic Dream or Telltale where it’s really cinematic and I get to watch cool cutscenes, but I can still tell I’m within the confines of a videogame.
Case in point, Jackson’s set pieces: While some of them had me pumping my fist in the air in delight, others were a bit overwrought and muddled, giving off more of the sense that I needed to press X to jump rather than feel emotionally invested in the scene. The barrel-riding sequence and the escape from Smaug’s lair both had some pretty thrilling moments, but they also felt interminable. The “finale” set piece in Smaug’s lair is particularly heinous, not because it doesn’t look cool, but because it’s a weird, overlong, forced bit of action that is meant to serve as a smokescreen to fool audiences into thinking that it’s a legitimate ending, which it isn’t. And if you don’t groan out loud at Bilbo’s final line, then I’ll eat my hat (which is made of chocolate).
Still, the barrel sequence, in which our dwarves make their escape from the halls of the Woodland Elves in wine barrels, has Jackson written all over it. But just having thirteen dwarves and one hobbit navigating treacherous rapids in oak-and-cabernet-aged barrels wasn’t enough for Peter Jackson. Like everything else in his version of Middle Earth, this chase sequence comes with 35% additional orcs (and no trans fats) and elves hunting them down, doing battle, and leaping across the heads of our heroes like fleshy stepping stones.
Instead of what should have been a quick cameo role, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) returns for a large, featured part, and boasts a whole new array of parkour ninja murdering skills that he must have forgotten in the decades between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Seeing him leap across the heads of our protagonist, then flip over the head of Dwarf #8 in order to shoot an arrow through the face of two orcs at once is objectively cool, but makes for a visually crowded experience. With Legolas (Orlando Bloom) parkour jump-shooting orcs in increasingly physics-and-good-sense-defying ways for the entirety of his screen time, it smacks of fan service in the worst way.
All of this, of course, renders Evangeline Lilly’s casting somewhat moot; her character Tauriel was created from whole cloth for this trilogy, and her love story with Kili feels just as manufactured. It isn’t to say that Lilly is unenjoyable; she isn’t. Rather, when you have her paired with the extremely overpowered Mary Sue that is Legolas, and force her into a slightly unbelievable love story for the sake of having a slightly unbelievable love story, you’re going to get diminishing returns. Hopefully, she’ll come into her own a bit more in the next film.
Some will write off The Hobbit Trilogy as the Millenial equivalent of the disappointing Star Wars prequels, to which my colleague Gerry Duggan replied, “How dare you.” I’m inclined to agree with Gerry on that regard; shitting on the Star Wars prequels is essentially the Godwin’s Law equivalent in the fanboy community, and while Jackson’s Hobbit films aren’t nearly as enjoyable as his Lord of the Rings cycle, it’s unnecessarily reductive and bombastic to draw such a comparison.
Does The Desolation of Smaug suffer from narrative overstuffing? Yes. Are some of the action sequences overlong and overdone? Yes. Does the film stand on its own as a complete work? Yes, in a weird fractured sort of way, but it works better as part of a whole. And, most importantly, is The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug a qualitatively fun film? Overwhelmingly yes. While it isn’t likely to win over new converts, it’s hard not to find yourself smiling during The Desolation of Smaug. Even when its at its absolute hammiest (e.g. Bilbo’s last line, Thorin surfing down a Capri Sun river of molten gold), it’s still a blast to watch and one that you won’t want to miss this holiday season.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is in theaters on Friday (December 13th).
What did you think of the film? Let us know in the comments below or tell me on Twitter.