The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review
by Daniel Rester
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug still finds Peter Jackson trying to capture that same level of movie magic that he found in his Lord of the Rings trilogy — based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels. While the previous Hobbit entry and this film come close at times, it still just isn’t the same. But that’s also okay in ways because Hobbit and Rings are different in many ways both on the page and screen. So, on its own level (like last year’s An Unexpected Journey), Smaug is enjoyable in many ways. Just don’t go in expecting Two Towers or Return of the King greatness as far as Jackson sequels go.
Smaug pretty much picks up right where Journey left off. Bilbo Baggins, played by the wonderful Martin Freeman, is continuing his quest with Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and the thirteen dwarves. They are all led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who is determined to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and all of its treasure from the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).
In this middle chapter of the film trilogy, the company is still outrunning a pack of orcs. But now they must also face giant spiders, elves, and other Middle-earth beings along the way to the mountain. In the character department this time around, we get the return of Legolas (a character who is not in the Hobbit novel), again played by Orlando Bloom – who is noticeably older looking, even though this is supposed to be a prequel to the Rings trilogy. There is also the addition of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a female elf from Mirkwood who is a character entirely invented by the filmmakers. And then there is Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), and Thranduil (Lee Pace), all characters who are actually in the novel.
Smaug has a lot going on in its series of events — and it feels long and padded out because of it — but it remains exciting and keeps a brisk pace throughout the majority of its runtime. With all of the exposition out of the way in Journey, Smaug hits the ground running and provides multiple action sequences. One of the action highlights is a ridiculous but tremendously entertaining scene involving barrels and a river; I could see it becoming a theme park ride.
Jackson, his team of screenwriters, and the visual effects army behind them again provide a rich view of Tolkien’s world. Tolkien purists will nitpick at some things, but Jackson’s approach is impressive for the most part – by expanding the story by including material from other Tolkien work. The film does suffer from some middle-chapter narrative flaws, some of the CGI is a bit video game-like at times, and a few of the dwarf characters are still very underwritten, but Smaug still has Jackson finding the pulse of Tolkien’s work in ways.
The thing Smaug does best is in its depiction of the formidable title character. The dragon is simply a knockout, elevating the film when he appears on the screen. Cumberbatch, who also did motion capture for the part, provides the perfect amount of menace in his voice acting (though his vocal performance was altered a bit in post-production). The scenes involving dialogue exchanges between him and Bilbo are easily the best in the film.
Though Cumberbatch as Smaug is a standout in the film, the rest of the cast is good as well. Freeman is perfect once again as Bilbo, while McKellan is always welcome as Gandalf. Armitage brings the right amount of stubbornness and determination to Thorin again, but Ken Stott stands out among the dwarves this time around; he plays Balin, an older dwarf who seems to care about Bilbo the most. It is also pretty fun to see Bloom kicking butt again as Legolas, especially in a one-on-one scene involving Legolas and an orc. Lilly and Evans also add a lot as Tauriel and Bard, two interesting side characters who could easily become fan favorites by the third chapter. However, when all is said and done, it is still a tad difficult to get emotionally involved with main quest in the film. This is mainly because we still don’t know enough about the majority of the dwarves with whom we spend so much time with; I really hope those characters are further developed in the last film, which would likely make the trilogy end on a stronger note.
As I mentioned, some of the CGI is a bit obvious at times, but Smaug is still breathtaking on a technical level as a whole. The visual effects, costumes, production design, sound design, editing, and cinematography are all noteworthy. Only the music score disappoints a bit when it comes to these fields, with Howard Shore providing unusually forgettable (for him) orchestrations.
Smaug works as excellent fantasy entertainment, though it isn’t quite as masterful as Jackson’s past achievements. The villainous Smaug is incredible, though, making for one of the coolest dragons on-screen in years. I can’t wait to see what the filmmakers do with him and the heroes in the next chapter.
Score: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A-)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images).
Runtime: 2 hours and 41 minutes.