The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug | Peter Jackson | December 13, 2013
After seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a year ago, I composed myself as I left the IMAX theater, mostly pleased but disappointed that I’d have to wait another year to see The Desolation of Smaug and yet another year to see There and Back Again, the second and third parts of the expanded Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy, rather than all three films back-to-back-to-back. This past weekend, I walked out of a LieMAX/RPX theater with a much better feeling about the series, thanks to the improvements that come from spacing out sequels.
Compared to last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is much livelier, if not also better paced. While Journey was bogged down by the frame story opening and all the Bag-End shenanigans (which were – don’t get me wrong – lively) before the journey actually began, Smaug leaps right in, pausing briefly to show Gandalf (Ian McKellen) sharing a meal with Thorin (Richard Armitage) in the Prancing Pony and convincing him to gather a troupe to reclaim the Arkenstone, retake Erebor from Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), and rally the seven Dwarven armies. Jumping ahead twelve months-time, Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf, Thorin, and the dwarves high-tail it to Beorn the Bear’s (a towering Mikael Persbrandt) cabin and seek refuge from the elite Orc troop on their trail. After bidding Beorn farewell the next morning, the party ventures into Mirkwood sans Gandalf, who finds Black Speech graffiti and a telepathic warning from Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), all of which sets the rest of Smaug and what is to come in There and Back Again and the Lord of the Rings into play. From that point on, the dwarves and Bilbo go their own way to the Lonely Mountain, encountering giant spiders, the Mirkwood elves and their leader Thranduil (a sassy Lee Pace), and Bard (Luke Evans) and citizens of Laketown before facing down Smaug in the abandoned halls of Erebor while Gandalf investigates the Nazgul tombs and the ruins of Dol Guldur.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug thematically chooses to examine the mortality and vanity of elves and the effects of greed on men, pushing Thorin’s quest to reclaim the throne (heavily emphasized in the first film, along with what it means to be a hero) to the background. Thranduil, having seen the effects of Smaug first-hand, wants none of Thorin’s quest and wants to stay out of any conflicts between men, dwarves, Orcs, and dragons outside of Mirkwood; Legolas (a maybe unnecessary returning Orlando Bloom), still holds his racial enmity towards dwarves (although a young Gimli gets a mention, as if to hint at what is to come) and starts to deal with his mortality, perfection, and believed invulnerability towards the film’s end; Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the head of the Elven Guard (and a new character created for the film), is more open to and accepting of the other races of Middle-Earth, as evidenced by her bonding with Kili (Aidan Turner). On the human side, Bard (Luke Evans) is the underdog of Laketown, a descendant of the last leader of Dale, and always tries to do right for the people of Laketown, even if it means donning a metaphorical gray hat; The Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry), on the other hand, is corrupt, greedy, and looks down on the common folk, which make up most of Laketown’s populace; his opinions are easily manipulated by Alfrid (Ryan Gage), his slimy right-hand man, adviser, and Grima Wormtongue of the prequel trilogy, if there was one.
While the continuing quest seems like a series of short adventure rides and action sequences punctuated by character development and less exposition-heavy dialogue, it is unabashedly fun. The thrilling barrel escape from Mirkwood (below) is easily the highlight (not counting Smaug, but we’ll get to the wyrm shortly) of the film, as it functions as a prolonged fight sequence in addition to a mini-adventure ride down whitewater rapids. The giant spider sequence in Mirkwood is frightening enough to scare those who aren’t normally afraid of spiders – at least giant talking spiders who want to eat the intrepid travelers. As for Smaug in the halls of Erebor, it’s the most suspenseful of them all.
The effects in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug have easily improved, given the year between it and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Azog (Manu Bennett), the lead CGI Orc, looks much more polished and convincing than in Journey, and rightfully so because the initial CGI work on the character for the first film was a rush job. The same goes for the other Orcs and Beorn in bear form. As for Smaug, his motion-capture and design is where WETA earns their gold stars. While they do go with what is by now the traditional dragon design, the CGI is so detailed that I could swear I was watching an actual dragon slither, crawl, and fly through gold-filled chambers and empty halls. Smaug’s vocalization was equally convincing (even more so than CGI talking animals), and Cumberbatch’s gravelly voice and lizard-like movements translated perfectly from motion-capture to the big screen. Regarding the high frame rate (48 frames per second), at times, it works better than others. It (and the CGI) is most evident during the action sequences, adding the feel of video game cutscenes, and less so during some on-set scenes, but the depth of the native 3D overall lessens the impact.
There is plenty to enjoy about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, from the character moments to the roller-coaster action sequences to the improved pacing and overall improved CGI, and it’s even more enjoyable if you happen to catch Peter Jackson and the Colbert family (Stephen, his wife, and their two sons) in their blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos.
Rating: 8.8 out of 10