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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review: A Long Walk to Nowhere
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a hard film to review. Not because it was exceedingly bad or good, but because by the strictest of definitions, it’s not really its own film. It’s a bridge between gaps, the middle chapter that leads into the saga’s epic conclusion that really has no solid beginning or end. And while I’d gladly admit it is a much more cohesive experience than An Unexpected Journey, it still suffers from the same pacing issues and harsh tonal shifts found in the original.
The Desolation of Smaug wastes no time jumping back into Middle Earth, aptly picking up directly where An Unexpected Journey ended. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and the dwarves of Erebor have survived the persistent attacks from the pale orc Azog and, with a little help from Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), are continuing their journey toward the Lonely Mountain to do battle with the evil dragon Smaug.
That’s really all there is to the synopsis of the story, because again, there’s no real beginning and no real end. And in order to pad the film’s unnecessarily long running time, several side stories weave themselves in with the main plot to help keep the film’s momentum going.
The most interesting of which is the evil that Gandalf discovers during his investigations on some strange occurrences involving a necromancer and the presence of dark magic. This whole story is meant to serve as a prologue to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it doesn’t ever add anything substantial to the Hobbit film itself. Truth be told, I’m not exactly confident that it really matters much to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, either.
The worst of these side stories involves a new female elf named Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and the love triangle she finds herself entangled in involving a dwarf named Kili (Aiden Turner) and the infamous Legolas (Orlando Bloom). Unlike Gandalf’s story that attempts to explain a deeper storyline, this entire sequence was a waste of time that lacked purpose, wasted the potential of Tauriel’s character, and did little to build the film’s overall story. Truly, this film could easily have had a much more tolerable running time had this entirely disposable angle been done away with.
While these side stories attempt to add layers of depth to the The Desolation of Smaug, more often than not, they play a key role in its awkward tonal problems. In keeping true to the source material, The Hobbit’s story is a much more fun and whimsical brand of fantasy that barely compares to the darker tones of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But once these side stories began to creep into the overall plot of the film, I found myself emotionally manipulated in uncomfortable ways. One minute, you’ll be laughing and be truly engaged in some of the more blissful scenes involving the dwarves and their unique escapades, but that joy is squelched in the next when Gandalf sets foot in a dark and moody tomb that feels ripped straight from a 17th-century horror story.
It’s because of these jerky tonal shifts that the story of The Desolation of Smaug is somewhat awkward and feels more jagged than smooth, making the fun scenes feel cartoonish and the more solemn scenes oppressively dark.
Due to a veritable deluge of characters and a lack of real characterization, I found myself unable to care for about 75% of the people on screen or what happened to them. There are several dwarves that accompany Thorin and Bilbo on the long journey toward Smaug and the Lonely Mountain, but one is more likely to identify them as “the bearded one” or “the goofy one” than by their actual names. Aside from Tauriel, Legolas, and Thranduil, the elves serve little purpose, if any, and the orcs are just…bad orcs. Aside from Bilbo and his growing obsession with the Ring, the characters in The Desolation of Smaug lack dimension and typically stick to the archetypes of Good Guy and Bad Guy with little by way of explained motivation or actual depth.
However, a special note of praise must be given to the actual character of Smaug, whose malevolence and grandeur are beautifully captured through masterful CGI and Benedict Cumberbatch’s compelling voice performance. The scenes when Smaug interacts with Bilbo were far and away my favorite moments in the entire film, because they were the times when I actually felt a tangible sense of tension and fear of Smaug’s character and Bilbo’s safety.
Visuals are truly where The Desolation of Smaug’s strength lies. Although they don’t always feel as terrifying as the practical effects used in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, the CGI in this film was beautifully realized and incredibly meticulous in its execution. The various monsters depicted on screen were terrifying and lifelike, scenery was beautifully shot, camera tricks and angles successfully capture varying sizes of each of the unique races and creatures encountered in the story, and the film utilizes a brilliant amount of color to help convey the mood of a scene.
Although difficult to follow at times, much of the action in the film is fast and inventive, resulting in some truly ingenious scenes that are glorious to behold. Without jumping into spoilers here, there is one scene involving a river chase and barrels that is by far one of the best scenes I’ve seen in a film this year, due largely to its creative use of rapidly-paced action and comedic genius. When coupled with a great soundtrack that captures the epic quality of the film, it’s moments like these that I truly enjoyed watching The Desolation of Smaug.
If there’s any iconic scene in a Lord of the Rings film, it’s that of a panoramic camera view capturing the breathtaking scenery around the company as they walk toward their next destination. These shots alone almost exactly sum up The Desolation of Smaug: a long walk that, while beautiful and inventive, never really goes anywhere during its 2 hour and 40 minute run time. It’s certainly a step up from An Unexpected Journey, but from start to finish, it’s quite apparent that The Desolation of Smaug suffers from diluted middle chapter syndrome.