Reel Matt

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Film #408


The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug. Bilbo Baggins is in possession of a mysterious and magical ring.

Year 2, Film #43

THE REVIEW: A year ago tomorrow, I had the privilege of seeing an advanced screening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and today I was able to see a screening of the second film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. If you recall my thoughts on the first, you’ll probably remember I was very outspoken about the film and thought Peter Jackson made a phenomenal return to Middle Earth despite many other critics knocking the film for being too long, unfocused, and for too many questionable actions (the eagles at the end is the best example of that). Unlike most sane people, I’m a big advocate for the sprawling epics that the films are. The longer, the better. Because the most entertaining, and also most captivating, aspect of the entire universe is the mythology surrounding it all.

An Unexpected Journey was very much like a history lesson of sorts. It established this new story of a dwarven kingdom lost to the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the quest of thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the burglar-hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan), to reclaim it. It depicted what Erebor was like at its peak and the aftermath of Smaug. But it was also very lighthearted and playful; it was an unexpected journey. The Desolation of Smaug is much, much darker than the first film and also shifts the focus to the present and the near future. What is happening and what is about to happen. Life isn’t just green hills in the Shire and the magnificent elven town of Rivendell. We see the literal desolation — the ruined town of Dale and the starving people of Laketown — but also the evil that has grown in its wake. Whereas An Unexpected Journey is a slightly violent family film, The Desolation of Smaug is a hard PG-13 film intended to showcase the evil that is consuming Middle Earth.

A lot of the same great things we’re used to in Jackson’s films are back. Breathtaking vistas and cinematography that only New Zealand could provide, an immersive score provided by Howard Shore, and the aforementioned wealth of details including more backstory on Durin’s line, the elves of Mirkwood, and a new look at the rings of power. But what makes The Desolation of Smaug unique is the action. No, this isn’t the first film set in Middle Earth to feature battles both large and small, but I’d argue The Desolation of Smaug is the most action-packed and eventful film yet. I remember people complaining after the first film how they would fill a second (let alone the third) film given that the company was practically left at the foot of the Lonely Mountain. Turns out, there’s much less sitting around and a whole lot more doing. A lot of things lie between the end of the last film and the Lonely Mountain including the skinchanger Beorn, Mirkwood replete with spiders and angry elves, passage through Laketown, and figuring out how to enter the Lonely Mountain once they get there. Not only is the almost never a dull moment, but The Desolation of Smaug has the highest number of orc decapitations out of the other films combined. While a lot of the carnage is bloodless, the sheer volume is quite substantial and a lot more than I was expecting, especially given there’s no giant battle like the battle of Helm’s Deep or the battle of Pelennor Fields. Again, a much darker film than before.

Something else that’s worthy of mention is the acting. When you think of the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit films, you don’t necessarily think Oscars in the acting categories (although Ian McKellan was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in The Fellowship of the Ring). And I’m not saying they should really be considered for these categories, but the work done by Martin Freeman in particular as Bilbo Baggins deserves special recognition. He is far and away the perfect choice for the role of Bilbo. The level of nuance he brings to the character is mind-blowing. There are just so many little quirks and idiosyncrasies that make him the lovable and very realistic character that he is. A prime example of this is when Bilbo is in Smaug’s lair (those giant piles of gold coins you’ll see in the TV commercials). The facial expressions he gives are not only brilliantly funny, but also the exact face you could only expect Bilbo to give. I also want to call out Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the dragon Smaug. The brief glimpses you may have seen in trailers, commercials, or even the opening of his eye at the end of An Unexpected Journey, do not do the character justice. Smaug is a terrific villain and a lot of that is due to the voice and, the single most terrifying thing about him — his smile.

There is an easy thing for me to target as a negative to the film and I’d be remiss if I failed to mention it. That of course is the entire Dol Goldur storyline with Gandalf, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), and the Necromancer (also portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch). Not having read the book, I’m not sure exactly how much of this appears but from my understanding, it’s not a lot. What is just rumor and stories heard second-hand is actually shown in the film. I can’t judge the film from an adaptation point-of-view (again, I didn’t read the book) but looking at it as a standalone film or even combined with the previous one, it does seem a bit too tangential and unfocused. The problem isn’t the big-ticket ideas that the Dol Goldur story is there to convey (the ideas are very spoilery but aren’t too hard to guess) but the fact that they seem tacked on. Out of the entire film which clocks in at 161 minutes, there probably isn’t more than 20 minutes spent on Dol Goldur and the Necromancer, yet those 20 minutes feel like they could take up at least half the film. I enjoyed it nonetheless because it allowed me to make many connections I never could before (and I’m a sucker for more of the mythology), but I am aware that it may not be the most appealing to all audiences.

Sadly, the screening was not in the 3D HFR (high frame-rate) but only in regular 3D so I can’t comment on what that experience was like. It also wasn’t in the Atmos-equpped theater which I thought it might be, so again, unable to comment on that. While the way you see it is quite important (I’m going to see it again in 3D HFR as that is Peter Jackson’s recommend viewing experience) but the film itself is of the utmost importance. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a much darker film than the rest in the Middle Earth series and this gives it a unique feel. It still has the sense of adventure, epic stories, and beautiful vistas with the same amusing characters and detailed mythology. I feel like people will appreciate The Desolation of Smaug more because more things happen and there isn’t as much dead space. Or, if you’re already crazy like I am an enjoy three-hour films, The Desolation of Smaug will be a perfect fit for you. See it in theaters though; this isn’t meant to be seen on a small computer.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens in theaters on Friday, December 13, 2013.

Update: Since writing this review, I have seen The Desolation of Smaug in HFR 3D and wrote an article comparing my experiences with the two Hobbit films and the pros and cons of HFR in general. Go take a look if that sounds interesting. The TL;DR version is: if you can, make the extra effort to see The Desolation of Smaug in HFR 3D.

THE RATING: 5 out of 5