Mania Grade: B+
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- Starring: Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom and the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch
- Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro
- Directed by: Peter Jackson
- Studio: New Line Pictures
- Rating: PG-13
- Run Time: 161 minutes
Mania Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
On the road again...
By Rob Vaux
December 12, 2013
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
© Warner Bros/Robert Trate
By now, we’ve all made our peace with the fact that The Hobbit trilogy is spreading too little butter over too much bread (to paraphrase the author). The first film had to stretch itself to an ungainly length, pulling every possible implication of JRR Tolkien’s original novel just to fill Warners’ ridiculous mandate for a trilogy. Thankfully, all that heavy lifting pays dividends in the second film, which doesn’t bother with any of the turgid exposition that almost derailed its predecessor. It still feels too long, with new material that Tolkien never conceived of brought in to fill out its length. But it doesn’t make for a bad fit, and the stuff we paid to see is still on glorious display.
And as I said, we don’t waste time. Director Peter Jackson tosses the company of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) straight into Mirkwood Forest, home to giant spiders and cranky elves aplenty. Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) has split to handle some trouble further south, which means it's up to Bilbo (Martin Freeman) to keep the dwarves on the path to their ultimate destination.
Said destination serves as the film's biggest selling point: the Lonely Mountain where the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is sitting pretty on a literal mountain of gold. The Desolation of Smaug may earn a distinction as the first dragon movie to actually turn a profit, and thanks to Jackson's keen sense of spectacle, the beast is well worth the wait. It's not just that he's impossibly huge and reasonably scary. Like Andy Serkis's Gollum, the human performer behind him conveys an extraordinary sense of character. Smaug is everything we could have hoped for: cunning, vain, a little bit lazy and supremely confident in his ability to crush any opposition like a bug. His interaction with Bilbo is an unabashed highlight of the entire series, despite departing considerably from Tolkien's original version of the scene.
About that… Middle-earth purists will have plenty to complain about, since Jackson goes fully off the reservation more than once. Most of the time, however, his changes reflect cinematic necessity more than just a need to fill screen time. The dwarves, for example, can't just sit there on the stoop while Bilbo faces down the dragon; Thorin needs to exhibit more leadership than he did in the book and simply asking the burglar to "earn his keep" won't fly here.
Similarly, the Mirkwood elves needed more development from the book in order to demonstrate their status as unaffected neutrals. So the king (Lee Pace) becomes an isolationist jerk while his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom) debates the merits of his policy with would-be love interest Tauriel (Evangeline Lily). Tolkien could gloss over those details; Jackson has no such luxury. Luckily, his changes here enrich and deepen the mythology rather than disrupt it.
More importantly, they don't detract from the action. While the first film dragged its feet with interminable exposition and padding , this one flies from one slick scene to the next, never flagging in its place and taking full advantage of Jackson's penchant for Rube Goldberg-style action. The initial confrontation with Smaug sees the best of it, but we also get it in Bilbo's famous battle with the spiders of Mirkwood, and in the barrel ride down the river (which boast a number of new flourishes). The director infuses them all with imagination and glee, reminding us of the cinematic anarchist he used to be before moving on to more mature work.
And the enhancements often work in favor of Tolkien's mythology, providing clever little twists that should help enthusiasts warm to the piece. For example, the spiders in the book talked, and they don’t here… until Bilbo puts on the Ring, when its dark magic allows him to understand their Mordor speech. Jackson and his collaborators are too smart to let little opportunities like that slide, and The Desolation of Smaug benefits from their efforts.
The weakest parts actually involve the Gandalf subplot, and while McKellan is firing on all cylinders, the film can’t keep us interested in his interminable efforts to head the Necromancer off at the pass. In addition, we don’t actually see nearly as much of Freeman as we’d like. He’s forced to compete with too many other characters, and while he makes the most of his screen time, this Hobbit has less of the actual Hobbit than I’d like. Our expectations were driven down by the first film, however, such that the shortcomings here hit us much more softly than they might have otherwise. The rest of The Desolation of Smaug finds the one thing the first movie lacked: focus. In the process, it sets the franchise back on track and leaves us with elevated hopes for finishing with a flourish. Considering the alternatives, we’ll take it, with a nod of gratitude at the series’ magic which isn’t quite done with us yet.