← Back to Reviews

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I don't know how one is supposed to turn a rather short book like J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit into a trilogy, but that's exactly what Peter Jackson has done. No stranger to Middle-Earth, having helmed the phenomenal Lord of the Rings trilogy, the best things that can be said about his re-imagining of this classic tale is that at least the production values and acting are on par with its predecessors. As with the aforementioned trio, The Hobbit was shot back-to-back in New Zealand, resulting in the release of one sequel per year. For better or worse, An Unexpected Journey kicked off what would be an all new adventure, albeit on a rather sluggish pace, particularly its overlong dinner party sequence and character introductions that made up most of its first half.

Luckily those problems do not extend to the second part of the trilogy, here titled The Desolation of Smaug. Having already established the cast, the film picks up from where we left our heroes after being rescued from orcs by eagles. The pace is certainly tighter and less slow, although there still is the occasional lag. The film begins, oddly, with another prologue scene: this time a conversation between the battle-hardened dwarf prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the ever-wise Gandalf (Ian MacKellen). After that we cut back to where we last left the Hobbit and his dwarf companions. As before, The Desolation of Smaug really comes alive during the moments which readers are familiar with. Lots of new hazards await our heroes in the form of monstrous spiders, suspicious elves, more and more orcs, corrupt townsfolk, and ultimately, the titular villain himself.

Speaking of which, the crowning jewel of this second part is the fated scene where Bilbo confronts Smaug the dragon in his treasure-laden lair. Like Gollum, the folks at Weta Workshop, through the wizardry of motion capture technology do a bang-up job of rendering this beast a truly dangerous, terrifying monster. Benedict Cumberbatch, too, deserves credit not only for performing the motion capture movements of the dragon (similar to Andy Serkis as Gollum), but for providing the beast with a rumbling, floor-shaking baritone that sends chills up one's spine. For audiences more familiar with Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman (Bilbo) as Watson, the scene, perhaps unintentionally, is also dryly amusing if you make the connection. Either way, Smaug is a real triumph, emerging as one of cinema's greatest dragons.

That said, The Desolation of Smaug takes quite a while to get there, and as with its predecessor, it ultimately depends on whether the viewer is prepared to accept the changes and additions Jackson made from the book, appreciate the film at face value, or are prepared to grumble with disappointment. En route, the film zigzags back and forth between talky bits and CGI effects as well as other additions. The fight with the spiders in the Mirkwood forest is chillingly handled and builds to its climax with true terror, the arachnids themselves being the stuff of nightmares. There's also an extensive roller-coaster style escape in which our heroes escape downriver in barrels while dodging attacking orcs. For the most part this sequence is viscerally exciting, but there are a few moments when it gets a bit silly, particularly in the sometimes implausible choreography of the elves as they fight back against the attackers. There's an even lengthier showdown between the dwarves and the dragon in the Misty Mountain which mostly works on a crowd-pleasing level (especially for audiences who want to see Thorin face off against the beast that destroyed his home), but may infuriate Tolkien loyalists expecting an untarnished adaptation what they see as a work of art.

Then there's the inclusion of two new characters, one of who is familiar to audiences of Lord of the Rings, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and a skillful she-elf named Tauriel. While it's nice to see Legolas again, I'm not quite sure what Jackson is going for by including him in the incidents where the dwarves are taken prisoner. There's also an implied "love story" subplot between the youngest of the dwarves and Tauriel which, although not fatal to the film, is a curious addition nonetheless. We also Gandalf and Radagast (Sylvestor MacCoy) trail a mysterious evil to stone ruins, which turns out to be the ghost of the major baddie from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is obviously meant to tie The Hobbit to the more famous trilogy, which is quite understandable given that this is, after all, a prequel to Lord of the Rings. Lake Town is also stunningly realized as a destitute but simultaneously seedy village with a corrupt mayor. Luke Evans also makes a very pleasing Bard, and the addition of his family brings a lot of emotional weight to his character.

In short, The Desolation of Smaug's length and additions will understandably annoy anyone expecting Jackson to adapt the novel more "accurately", but my "criticisms" are mostly just shameless nit-picking, because on the whole I really did enjoy The Desolation of Smaug. It's certainly more frantic than its predecessor and never boring. The only major drawback of the movie is its cliffhanger ending. This is intentional and meant to make audiences come back for the final film, but it's still done in a way that feels very abrupt. On that level, then, The Desolation of Smaug is not meant to be a standalone film, but a two-parter in the same way that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ended up being.

Love it or hate it, Jackson's enthusiasm for the material still shines through even in places where it occasionally goes off the rails. While it may be in the shadow of its predecessor trilogy, it's nonetheless great to go on another adventure with Jackson, Weta, and company.