‘Desolation of Smaug’ Reignites Magic of Middle-earth
Unlike The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which garnered a total 17 Academy Awards, last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey took some time to warm up to. Issues with the first chapter were all over the board. From a bloated 169-minute run time to the seemingly sped up High Frame Rate technology to an eccentric wizard covered in bird dung, Tolkien purists and casual moviegoers alike saw The Hobbit as massive step down from Peter Jackson’s acclaimed trilogy. So for all of you naysayers out there, Jackson has taken those concerns to heart with a shorter, edgier and more energetic sequel in The Desolation of Smaug.
Smaug wastes little time reintroducing audiences to the epic journey to reclaim the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and 13 dwarves remain on the run, evading the last film’s pale baddie and his cronies in the wild. And that’s just the start of many obstacles for the dwarves in The Desolation of Smaug. Add on top of that, confrontations with spiders, elves and men, all leading up to a fire-breathing dragon at journey’s end.
The Desolation of Smaug prides itself in delivering non-stop action that does minimal for character development, but pushes the story closer to its ultimate goal, the mountain. Bilbo and the dwarves are never given a breather, tossed from one situation to the next. One sequence in particular involves dwarves in barrels down a river that’s sure to be a favorite.
Martin Freeman (Sherlock) has his moments to shine as Bilbo Baggins, bailing out his companions in times of need. However, he’s not always the primary focus of the film and occasionally pushed to the side when the plot demands it. Then again, Smaug is focused on the ensemble rather than individual characters ala Fellowship. He’s surely grown from An Unexpected Journey, no longer the fussy hobbit burdening this quest from the first film.
Freeman’s finest moment in Smaug is his one-on-one encounter with the dragon voiced by Sherlock alum Benedict Cumberbatch. Taken straight from Tolkien’s novel, the confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug is worth getting through nearly two hours of build-up.
Smaug is visually stunning, proving once again that WETA Digital is on top of their game. Remember how Gollum’s realism wowed audiences in 2002 and King Kong in 2005? Smaug sets that bar even higher. And Cumberbatch nails the voice acting with his distinct villainous tone.
The Desolation of Smaug will win over mainstream audiences, but not Tolkien purists. Like the previous film, Jackson expands a 100-page segment of the novel into 161 minutes of film. That is slightly shorter than An Unexpected Journey, but there’s so much new material crammed in here that it continues to feel more like a Lord of the Rings companion piece rather that a light-hearted Hobbit.
Most noticeably added is the inclusion of Evangeline Lilly’s warrior elf Tauriel, who’s there to give the film some sort of female presence. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) from Lord of the Rings also makes his triumphant return, despite being absent in the source material. Jackson’s additions serve the film well and shoehorn in a love triangle with one of the dwarves (One of the few dwarves actually developed). The third film will need to pay off all these add-ons majorly.
While it isn’t the perfect Middle-earth movie, The Desolation of Smaug will be better realized next year with the inevitable Extended Edition expanding upon rushed subplots of Gandalf playing wizard detective and an unseen stopover at the actual desolation. Another 20-30 minutes of added material on DVD and Blu-ray can easily transform this solid addition to a rival of the original trilogy.
When the film finally fades to black, expect groans and moans as The Desolation of Smaug leaves audiences hanging like no other film in the series before. It’s totally fine to be frustrated now and appreciate the cliffhanger next year in anticipation for the final installment, There and Back Again.