‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ review

It’s difficult to judge the second part of what was always intended to be a trilogy. You expect it to leave things open ended, and yet there are several examples of the second acts being among the best entrants in the respective series – Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers spring to mind. With The Desolation of Smaug though, how this second act is viewed will inevitably be down to what happens in the third film. It does not stand on its own – it exists solely to set up the conclusion, which we’ll have to wait until next year for. Desolation may inevitably be remembered as a decent, albeit forgettable entry, or it may be the film that proved the series never should have been a trilogy to begin with.

The Desolation of Smaug picks up right where An Unexpected Journey concluded, with Thorin, 12 dwarves, and one hobbit on the way into Mirkwood, home of the less-than-hospitable Wood elves. As the group battles spiders, shape changers, and orcs, they continue on their way to the Lonely Mountain, passing through Lake-town on the way. The group eventually comes face to fire-breathing snout with Smaug, the last great dragon of Middle-Earth. Hijinks ensue.

Fans of the book will likely be split by the liberties director/co-writer Peter Jackson takes.

Fans of the book will likely be split by the liberties director/co-writer Peter Jackson takes. The main points of the book remain, but the details are vastly expanded upon, and new elements – like the early introduction of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) – help to give the film its nearly three hour running time.

Some of the new material, like the character of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), is purely the domain of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (with help from Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro), while the rest builds off of hints the book (and Tolkien’s notes) gave, but never went into detail on. Characters like Bard the Bowman (Fast and Furious 6’s Luke Evans), an important fixture of the books, now has his own story arc involving the corrupt Master of Lake-town. Gandalf’s (Ian McKellan) story is similarly elevated from minor side story in the books, to full on battle against the forces of evil.

While these new introductions make sense to fill out a trilogy worth of films, it is still forcing the expansion of a single book that was never meant to be as sprawling as The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whether you are familiar with the book or not, the material just doesn’t always merit the additional content. Learning about the political problems in Lake-town is interesting, but it doesn’t help the films and slows things down. Desolation drags, especially in the third act of the movie during a lengthy battle with Smaug. Even in part two of three, a middle film needs to follow the same rules most films follow and have some form of climax. There is one in Desolation, but it feels watered down.

Where the first film in the Hobbit trilogy was primarily focused on introducing the new characters to the audience, the second spends a great deal of effort setting up elements that won’t come to fruition until the next film. It makes you question the necessity of most of what you are seeing.

That said, the film still retains the distinctive sprawling landscapes that helped make New Zealand a hot tourist destination. Returning to Middle-earth is always a good thing, and the world building remains a highlight. Unique settings and art design continue to make the series one of the most visually appealing ever made.

This is Jackson in his element. He continues to get solid performances out of his cast, both from the new players introduced, and those from the previous film and trilogy. Richard Armitage continues to steal the show as Thorin, while Evans sets up the character of Bard for a payoff in the next film. Martin Freeman remains the star though, even though his Bilbo features a bit less prominently than in the previous movie.

As with the previous Hobbit film, the new trilogy isn’t really helped by Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Those films were masterful creations that translated legendary books into an epic series, filled with likable characters and palpable tension.  The Hobbit, on the other hand, was meant to be a child’s story, and that is at odds with much of what made the previous trilogy work. The themes are wildly disparate, and yet The Hobbit films attempt to bring the two together. The book is lighthearted, while the films just hint at that before focusing on the desperate journey of a people looking to reclaim their home and avenge the loss of their people.

It isn’t that the themes are necessarily at odds, but it makes it difficult to separate the trilogies and judge them separately. Rather than being a fantastic building block for the Hobbit trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy becomes an anchor, forcing the two properties to be judged in the same way.  And that comparison does not favor The Hobbit.

Conclusion

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug is the weakest of the five J.R.R. Tolkien-related films, but it is still Peter Jackson’s take on Tolkien. That makes it better than most sci-fi/fantasy films by a wide margin. There are some pacing issues, and the climactic third act feels like something of a letdown, but the film is well directed, well-acted, and Middle-earth once again looks remarkable.

Desolation doesn’t necessarily hurt the Hobbit trilogy, but it doesn’t help it either. The biggest flaws in this film stems from the decision to make the property into a trilogy. Desolation of Smaug may end up retroactively working as a step on the longer journey through The Hobbit, but on its own it feels like a decent, but unnecessary film.

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