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Source: Extended BluRay
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continues his journey with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and a company of thirteen Dwarves on an epic quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. Having survived the beginning of their unexpected journey, the Company, led by heir to the throne Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), travels East, encountering skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) and a swarm of giant spiders in the treacherous, winding forests of Mirkwood. After escaping capture by the Wood-elves and their king, Thranduil (Lee Pace), the Dwarves journey to Lake-town, where they meet Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), and finally to the Lonely Mountain itself, where they must face the greatest danger of all: a creature more terrifying than any other that will test not only the depth of their courage but the limits of their friendship and the wisdom of the journey itself… the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Review The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Review The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Elephant in the room: as a faithful adaptation of the second act of Tolkien’s beloved book, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug fails, and fails spectacularly. It not only represents filmmaker Peter Jackson’s loosest Tolkien adaptation to date (far more so than An Unexpected Journey), it fundamentally alters key events, characters, themes and climactic encounters, sacrificing cherished story beats and subtleties for the sake of bigger, badder, grander movie magic and, worse, the expectations and attention spans of fickle audiences. Defenders of the Original Text will neither be pleased nor amused, and find Jackson has taken several steps too many to expand and energize the second entry in his Hobbit trilogy. The more you treasure Tolkien’s work, the more your distaste for The Desolation of Smaug will grow as the film hurtles toward its action-packed endgame.
As a film, though Jackson’s second chapter works, and works quite spectacularly. Divorced from the text, which is treated more like a rough outline than a sacred tome (a la The Lord of the Rings), The Desolation of Smaug is a brisk, thrilling, well-executed adventure through the dark wilderness of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The drama of the dwarves’ quest to reclaim their homeland has been heightened, even enriched, exponentially. The heart of Bilbo’s tale continues to pump the saga’s lifeblood, even when the brave little Hobbit is reduced to a less crucial hero in Thorin’s company. Secondary heroes and villains that were once sketches on the page are fully developed and that much more intriguing. And the journey, for all its faults, is suddenly more gripping, progressing with a confidence, clarity of purpose, breakneck pace and dazzling craftsmanship that’s entirely Jackson and entirely engrossing. Does Jackson make mistakes along the way? Absolutely, and plenty of ’em. Arguably more here than in An Unexpected Journey, although debate will rage as to what constitutes a mistake and what constitutes boldness. The real question is, does his ambitious imagination and at-times unchained id deliver? You bet, so long as you’re willing to accept The Desolation of Smaug on its own terms rather than holding it to the flame of Tolkien’s fire.
Desolation races towards the Halls of Erebor without taking so much as a breath, abandoning the longer, more character-driven stretches of An Unexpected Journey in favor of increasingly joyous, almost impish outbursts of rapidfire action and grand-scale peril. Jackson hasn’t left much room for a scene between Bilbo and, well, anyone other than Smaug, but there also isn’t the prevailing distrust between Bilbo and Thorin that required the first film to slow down and deal with simmering conflict within the Company. And with introductions out of the way, there’s little reason to do anything other than dive right into the next leg of the journey. Our little Hobbit hero has officially proven himself worthy of Thorin’s respect now, and Jackson thankfully doesn’t retread familiar ground or dig up old angst. Thorin, meanwhile, takes full ownership of the Company’s quest (albeit at the expense of poor, Ring-addled Bilbo, who’s once too often demoted to supporting player). Armitage takes ownership as well, delivering a commanding, layered performance that’s strong enough to justify the prince’s promotion. Here he’s a more complex and haunted would-be king than the gruff, tough to please nomad that scoffed and scowled at Bilbo throughout An Unexpected Journey. Freeman still finds plenty of scenes and passing encounters to swipe, though, chief among them an early moment in Mirkwood where the budding adventurer realizes the lengths to which he’s suddenly capable of going with the Ring in his possession.
Not that the remaining cast members are deprived of opportunities to shine. McKellan is as warmly wizened and lovably crusty a wizard as ever, with a number of visually striking sequences to his name that rather successfully dovetail The Hobbit into The Lord of the Rings. (The biggest problem being a rampant case of prequelitis, wherein the known outcome of Gandalf’s toe-to-toe with the Necromancer deprives the showdown of intended heft. Still, better than having a wizard who disappears for no reason when he’s most needed. Ahem.) The dwarves are also showcased now and again, not to mention a bit easier to distinguish, with the perfectly cast Ken Stott (Balin), Graham McTavish (Dwalin) and James Nesbitt (Bofur) making room in the spotlight for Kili (Aidan Turner) and Fili (Dean O’Gorman). Sure, John Callen (Oin), Peter Hambleton (Gloin), William Kircher (Bifur), Mark Hadlow (Dori), Jed Brophy (Nori), Adam Brown (Ori) and Bombur (Stephen Hunter) are largely comic relief and interchangeable background filler. So what? Each actor earns at least three memorable lines or gags that help set him apart from the rest of his colorful brothers in arms.
Then there’s the ever-expanding Hobbit family. Orlando Bloom is effective in his return to the role as Legolas, even if everyone’s favorite elf essentially enters the fray as an unlikable thug. (Personally, I dig Dark Legolas; if nothing else, Jackson is laying the groundwork for a redemptive turn-on-daddy arc bound to tie up nicely in the final installment of the trilogy.) Evangeline Lilly makes a fine Mirkwood elf, adding a touch of depth and welcome femme ferocity to the male-dominated proceedings. Her Tauriel may be wholly invented but, like Legolas’ presence, that all depends on where The Battle of the Five Armies runs with her character. Luke Evans plays a solemn but refreshingly fleshed out Bard the Bowman; racked with a smartly concocted mix of roguish nobility, generations-old guilt and quiet resolve. And both Pace and Cumberbatch rise to the occasion, crafting two very different but very formidable foes in the elf king and the titular dragon. Thranduil is on track to be one of the more nuanced villains in the trilogy, doling out fire and brimstone with an air of high-minded self-righteousness, while Smaug brings more weight to the table than the spiders, the Necromancer, Azog (Manu Bennett) and Azog’s mangled son Bolg (Lawrence Makoare) put together.
Yes, a number of questionable plotting and storytelling decisions have been made. (The most unforgivable being those that revolve around Smaug and a wildly out-of-place third act skirmish in Erebor.) Yes, action most certainly trumps drama. And yes, the this but that critiquing littering this review is evidence of how unreliable Desolation can be. But it’s hard to walk away from the film without some level of satisfaction; unless, again, your love of the text is such that you can’t set aside thoughts of what The Hobbit could have been. (To quote a disgruntled member, “Jackson shoulda stuck with the damn book.”) The liberties the filmmaker takes, though, free the film and allow it to flit about on the wind in a dazzling dance of swords, arrows, magic, flawed heroes, vile monsters, stirring music and sweeping visual effects. The more I focus in on the various pieces of The Desolation of Smaug, the more I feel the need to fly to the top of the page and lower my score. However, the more I suppress the urge to scrutinize every frayed edge or dwell on my attachment to Tolkien’s original work, the easier it is to sit back, let go, and embrace an invigorating ride through Jackson’s Middle-earth. Perfect? Goodness no. Desolation is as troubled as Journey, even if for completely different reasons. Fun? Thrilling? Eye-gouging and jaw-dropping? Yep, yep and yep. Enough to make the second part of Jackson’s trilogy easy to digest, enjoy and, ultimately, recommend.