Over-long, bloated and not a particularly good version of the book it was based on, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was still a rather entertaining movie. How does the second part of the trilogy stack up? Here is my review.
First off, this review is relatively spoiler-free, although it is hard to avoid some story particulars completely. There should be a follow-up post soon, which discusses some aspects of the movie in more spoilery detail. You might also want a quick look at my review of An Unexpected Journey from last year first.
So here we go: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug reviewed.
An exiled dwarven prince searches for an artifact called The Arkenstone, which holds the key to the existence of his people. To recover this artifact, he has to venture to a faraway mountain, batte his arch-enemy and a band of goblins on the way, escape the clutches of his OTHER arch-enemy in a scary forest, and, once inside the mountain, overcome a THIRD arch-enemy of the fire-breathing variety. All the while the ULTIMATE arch-enemy sits in a castle basement 200 miles or so to the south, plotting to exploit ALL THE OTHER arch-enemies in his plans to put spanners in the dwarven prince’s quest.
Cue lots of chases, fights, moody dwarven close-ups, rabbits pulling sleds and speeches about the end of the world as we know it. Oh, and there is a hobbit tagging along too.
Welcome to Indiana Oakenshield and the Mountain of Doom.
Much has been written about Peter Jackson’s choice of turning a simple tale of adventure and excitement into an epic end-of-the-world tie-in with the Lord of the Rings movies. I would personally have liked to see the first tale, but I can respect the choice made. Even though the script of The Hobbit movies take a lot of artistic licenses with the source material, most things can find some references in Tolkien’s own writings, at least if one looks outside of the books (this article here does a good job of looking at the lore credentials of the movie).
After a slightly messy start (the inclusion of Beorn is so short that one wonders how much will be added in the extended edition), The Desolation of Smaug finds its stride in a ridiculously entertaining middle sequence. Although overlong, the passage through Mirkwood and Lake-Town towards the Lonely Mountain is generally enjoyable. The visuals are great; simple scenes like Bilbo seeing butterflies over sunny Mirkwood and the fog-covered entrance to Lake-Town make an impression. You will also find some favourite scenes from the book played out. The spiders genuinely creepy, an escape involving barrels is turned into a stand-out action seqence, while the meeting between Bilbo and the dragon will have even Tolkien purists squeal with joy. Some of the added scenes are effective too, not least Gandalf and Radagast visiting a far-off menacing tomb.
The odd attempt of dwarven-elvish romance and some seriously messed-up geographical distances aside (at the start of the movie, warg-riding orcs make the trip from Beorn’s house to Dol Guldur in what can’t have been more than an hour), I could live well with most of the lore-choices in The Desolation of Smaug. Some choices also improve on the source material. The Bard character in the movie is much more interesting than Tolkien’s version; here he is given a story arc more worthy of his central role than the “blink and you’ll miss him” appearance in the book.
Still, the movie is best experienced if you don’t look for a faithful representation of the book. This is Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, not Tolkien’s. One with quite a few problems too. Jackson’s choice of fuelling the story with an endless series of Super Mario-like chase and fight sequences is unfortunate . Whenever the movie shifts into gear and gets the story going, you can be sure that some orcs are waiting across the hill, ready to push the story aside for another 10 minutes of running, platform jumping, arrow shooting and corny “run for your life” dialogue. Most of these chases add virtually nothing except a prolonged running time. Azog and his cohorts should really have been left on the cutting room floor. The Dol Guldur sequences are also less impressive than I had hoped, turning into distractions from more enjoyable spectacles happening further to the north.
Heroes and villains
A more fundamental issue is the role of some of the main characters. The hobbit himself, Bilbo, finds himself more or less sidelined. After having played out most of his character arc in the first movie (proving to the dwarves that even a hobbit can be brave), there is little more for him to do here than turn up as a regular deus ex machina to move the story forward whenever his dwarven employers find themselves in a tough spot. It is to Martin Freeman’s credit as an actor that these scenes are still uniformly delightful. No-one can do the befuzzled “hang on a minute” pose with one finger in the air better than Freeman.
Instead of those insignificant hobbits, Jackson desperately wants to tell the tale of dwarves and their role in Middle Earth. Most of the story is told from the perspective of Thorin and his attempts to reclaim the halls of Erebor, and the interaction with elves, menfolk and even orcs and necromancers are all tied into his quest. Good, then, that there is a truly stand-out performance among the dwarves in the movie, and that is… Balin? Ken Stott strikes the perfect balance between twinkly-eyed humour and tragic longing for the dwarven times of old.
As for Richard Armitage’s Thorin, his sheer stubbornness and anger management issues makes him a distinctly unsympathetic character, especially when his desire to recover The Arkenstone escalates near the end of the movie. One can only be grateful it wasn’t him who found the One Ring in the goblin caves, he’d be ensnared and off to serve Sauron immediately. Ultimately, the movie never quite recovers from the fact that its titled heroic figure is routinely pushed aside, while the chosen protagonist more or less comes across as a self-serving SOB.
As for other actors, those that make a positive impression are Luke Evans (as Bard) and Lee Pace (as king Thranduil). Evangeline Lilly plays the story’s slightly controversial female character Tauriel with both style and grace, but her character ultimately serves little purpose beyond working as a moral compass and romantic interest. One can only dread the number of bow and arrow-wielding elvish lasses that will turn up in Lord of the Rings Online after this. Orlando Bloom (Legolas) does his best impression of a wood-elf by acting real wooden. One could almost call the scenes involving him a diversion from the main storyline. Ian McKellen is still a great Gandalf, but his scenes are for the most part of little impact.
But oh, there is one actor who more or less steals the movie. Benedict Cumberbatch voices Smaug the dragon, and although there is surely enough audio effects trickery added to his voice, sheer manipulative menace oozes from the delivery of his lines. The 10-minute sequence between Bilbo and Smaug is the best this movie has to offer; a cat-and-mouse verbal chase through the treasure troves of The Lonely Mountain. Interestingly, this is also the scene of the movie that stays the most true to what unfolds in the book…
The laws of physics and the abysmal ending
Much can be written about The Desolation of Smaug and its disregard of the laws of physics. Most of the movie is firmly in Tom and Jerry territory, where hobbits can fall bone-crushing distances without so much as a scratch, where elves routinely defy the laws of gravity, and where almost every imaginable object can be used as a sled or balance point in the heat of battle.
Sometimes, this is used to great effect, when the movie embraces this inherent silliness by going completely over the top. The before-mentioned barrel escape will likely divide opinions, but for me, this was a stand-out action sequence: Ridiculous, yet gloriously entertaining because of great effects and the relentless dynamic editing (bouncing Bombor barrels and all). Similarly, the scene between Bilbo and Smaug would likely have crushed the hobbit under tons of jewels as well as have the hair singed off both his head and his feet, but the interplay between fantastic actors, great dialogue and top-notch dragon effects made this the best part of the movie. Smaugs head peeking out from behind pillars, uttering seductive words of worry made for exhilarating, edge-of-the-seat scariness.
And then the final 20 minutes derails the movie completely. This is where an orgy of dodgy molten-gold CGI, lore-breaking romances and the complete abandonment of logic undermines the danger that the previous scene has so expertly set up. This will likely be a topic for discussion in a follow-up, spoiler-heavy post. For now, let’s just say that any sequence that is based on the arch-enemy being really, really stupid (while the previous six hours of the story has been about how utterly dangerous and clever he is) is somewhat off. And the saying “All that glitters is not gold” has rarely been more fitting than in the case of this movie’s ending.
It is a curious beast, The Desolation of Smaug. It can be argued that this is a more coherent experience than An Unexpected Journey, not least because it keeps a more even pace and has less of the dramatic mood swings of its predecessor, which could go from singing burping dwarves to death and destruction in a heartbeat. At the same time, it suffers from not being a standalone story. Instead, we are looking at three hours of chases which ends with a rather silly cliffhanger.
I still can’t get over the fact that the same people who wrote such a marvellous script for The Lord of the Rings are responsible for the convoluted story of The Hobbit movies. The former was a masterful example of adapting a large, unwieldy source text into a snappy and cinematic script, which still stayed true to the story it was based on. This time? They made a snappy and cinematic book into large, unwieldy movies, which often forgets the story in order to fit in yet another visual effects-driven chase.
Many of the problems likely stem from the decision to make three Hobbit movies instead of two rather late in the process.The barrel escape was originally planned to be the ending of the first movie, while the second was mostly to deal with the Lonely Mountain stuff. The need to shoot a lot of filler material to stretch the story into three parts would explain the lazy, nonsensical ending of The Desolation of Smaug. However, I still find it hard to see just what story Jackson wants to tell with these movies, and the added Dol Guldur-oriented scenes don’t really gel well with the main storyline from the book. Add the confused treatment of the protagonists and too much bloat, and this movie could well have turned into a real turkey.
When it works, though, it is just amazingly entertaining. There are individual scenes of great adventure, of fun and excitement, where the joyful storytelling and the beautiful images brings Middle Earth to the screen once more. Where actors make your favourite characters come to life. You’ll cheer for these sequences. You’ll despair that they don’t come together to a coherent whole more often. And you’ll wonder what a Peter Jackson whose ego wasn’t fuelled by 11 Oscars would have made of The Hobbit.
Accept that it is a flawed diamond, and The Desolation of Smaug is still a great adventure. It is less true to the lore than its predecessor, but also pacier. Leave your Tolkien credentials at the door, forget the book it was based on and come to watch the spectacle. It may not leave the lasting impression of the LOTR movies, but as adventure fantasy goes, it still has a lot to offer.
And one can always hope that The Hobbit: The Slimline Edition hits blu-ray eventually…
Biscuit rating: 3 out of 4.