REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Despite a relentless pace and impressive effects, most notably bringing to life the impressive dragon at the heart of the tale, part two of Peter Jackson’s adaptation seldom engages and often bores.
SYNOPSIS: The hobbit Bilbo Baggins and a pack of dwarves continue their quest to liberate dwarvish treasure hoarded in the Lonely Mountain by the dragon Smaug.
PROS: The dragon Smaug, arrestingly realized by CGI and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch; well-realized renditions of the Elf Kingdom and Lake-town; winning if hammy performance by Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-town; impressively staged action sequences…
CONS: …that go nowhere for most of the movie; needless chases that serve little purpose; blending of elements from both Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Silmarillion that fit together too unevenly; forced love story between elf Tauriel and the dwarf Kili; dialogue and character development that sit poorly with the action sequences.
In a niche in world letters there lived The Hobbit. Not an unknown, unobserved niche filled with the trite borrowings of second-rate hacks and uninspired tales palely reflecting J. R. R. Tolkien’s much-loved children’s book, nor yet a dry, bare, desiccated niche where fantasy fans sucked dry the marrow of their favorite genre: it was The Hobbit, a groundbreaking work that, despite countless imitators (and outright theft), still holds the power to enthrall readers of all ages today.
Which is why Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second installment), despite being an obvious labor of love by its director, seems so misguided it might as well have been made by one of Tolkien’s imitators. Certainly Jackson learned a few lessons since last year’s release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — most notably that 48 frames per second makes what should be a breathtaking adventure look like the bottom of a cinematic wine barrel — but not the ones that would deliver a compelling, or even mildly diverting, movie. Indeed, Jackson, along with co-screenwriters Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, and Guillermo Del Toro, seem intent on delivering a cornucopia of Middle Earth’s greatest hits, melding elements of The Silmarillion to Tolkien’s twee tome. It’s a mistake, and one that cripples the story itself. The Hobbit worked in part because it maintained its focus on Bilbo Baggins, the bravest hobbit of them all, only occasionally leaving his point of view to help enhance a broader story. In order for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to become the epic of Jackson’s own The Lord of the Rings trilogy, however, it adds chases, psychotic slobbering orcs, a potential battle against ultimate evil, a love story, the politics of Lake-town, a town on a lake near the Lonely Mountain where a hoard of treasure rests beneath the belly of the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), and the introduction of the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), as well as the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Really, we’ve been there, do we need to go back again?
We do, and Jackson and company take great delight, alas, in offering viewers more of the same. Stripped of whimsy, the screenplay incorporates the same saccharine sentiment that hampered the last 20 minutes of The Return of the King and too much of the previous movie—that is, when it’s not hammering action sequences heaped upon the viewer in a desperate attempt to hide how thin the novel is when stretched across three three-hour movies. The sentiment, so cloyingly sweet that they might cause a hobbit himself to slip into a diabetic coma (and especially in the portions that hobbits consume of any meal) stands at odds with the darker subplot of orcs preparing for battle, especially as romance blooms between the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel.
Not always, however. At times levity works in its favor. Captured by Wood-eves, Bilbo rescues the dwarves and convinces them to escape by hiding in wine barrels; he rolls them into a river, and looks quite pleased with himself until he realizes that he has not considered his own part in the escape plan. It’s a fine moment that only lasts as long as he winds up hanging onto the side of one barrel as elves and orcs do battle on the river banks, with Legolas at one point hopping from dwarf’s head to dwarf’s head in a scene so over-the-top it makes James Bond’s jaunt across the heads of alligators in Live and Let Die look like a meditative sequence by Ingmar Bergman. Such sequences fit well with the modern blockbuster, but they possess little real energy, and there are far too many of them. Characters from the novel such as Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the shape-shifter Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) take a backseat not only to mindless action but also to hammy performances by incidental characters such as Stephen Fry’s Master of Lake-town. Indeed, for a tale about one ordinary hobbit finding his courage, it offers none of the characters a chance to grow, or the seasoned thespians to breathe life into them. Hence, Martin Freeman’s Bilbo constantly waxes between astonishment and frustration, Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield seldom looks more than glum, and Ian McKellen as Gandalf all but appears to want to check the sundial to see how much time he has left in this trilogy.
Certainly The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug offers more visual interest than its predecessor. Lake-town, despite at times looking like the back alleys of last year’s film adaptation of Les Miserables, appears as well-realized as the Shire, even as an army of orcs swarm across its rooftops. The interior of the Misty Mountain, treasure filling its depths, shine with the best realization CGI can provide.
It’s a little unfair to judge The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, because it is not a single movie but the second, three-hour part of a nine-hour-long (and perhaps more, once the DVDs hit the shelves) tale. It’s also understandable that Jackson and crew want to create a fantasy epic that viewers will not forget; why else would they tell a single tale in the amount of time it took the fellowship of the ring to reach Mordor? However, it’s still a mistake. In making a Berlin Alexander for the genre set, they have not brought the necessary depth and insight needed to make the endeavor worthwhile. We see less the desolation of Smaug, unfortunately, but more the celebration of slog.