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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

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Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evageline Lily

I was a bit cool on An Unexpected Journey, the first entry in the Hobbit trilogy, finding it overly padded and lacking in impact compared to The Lord of the Rings series, though I did ultimately find more to like about it than to dislike. I'm more enthusiastic with respect to the follow up, The Desolation of Smaug, though I still think that The Hobbit is a far cry from the magic of The Lord of the Rings, and I still think that this new series has some pretty serious structural and narrative problems. On the plus side, this film isn't stopped dead by singing and it has a pretty exciting villain in its titular character. The downside is that the presence of so many Dwarves still hasn't been justified, given that only about four of them have discernible personalities, a problem exacerbated by the arrival of a bunch of new characters.

When we last left Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellan), and the team of Dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), they had escaped a gang of Orcs and had the Lonely Mountain far in their sights, and Bilbo had secretly gained the One Ring after a run-in with Gollum. As The Desolation of Smaug opens, the company is still fleeing from the Orcs, led by Azog (Manu Bennett), who passes the task off to Bolg (Lawrence Makore) after being summoned back to the lair of their master. With the help of Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a skin-changer who hates Dwarves but hates Orcs more, the company keeps ahead of the Orcs and makes it to Mirkwood, where Gandalf is compelled to quit the task, telling them that he will reunite with them before they enter the Lonely Mountain. The Dwarves and Bilbo, meanwhile, must enter the wood, where they're left disoriented by a dark enchantment that has fallen over it, and then attacked by giant spiders. Things go from bad to slightly less bad when they're rescued from the spiders by Wood Elves led by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), but then taken prisoner by the Elves.

Invisible thanks to the One Ring, Bilbo remains free and is able to sneak into the Elf kingdom and rescue the Dwarves just as Orcs storm the gates, leading to an extended chase scene in which both Orcs and Elves are chasing Bilbo and the Dwarves, while also battling each other. Bilbo and the Dwarves escape, though one, Kili (Aidan Turner), has been injured in the fighting with what Tauriel and Legolas later learn was a poisoned arrow. With Legolas, Tauriel, and a gang of Orcs still in pursuit, Bilbo and the Dwarves escape first to Esgaroth and then, minus the injured Kili, his brother Fili (Dean O'Gorman), Bofur (James Nesbitt) and Oin (John Callen), to the Lonely Mountain where Bilbo is tasked with finding one gem (the Arkenstone) among all the accumulated jewels guarded by the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Meanwhile, Gandalf's journey leads him to the discovery that the Orcs are taking their orders from Sauron, who is preparing to wage a great war.

There are a lot of plot threads in The Desolation of Smaug - more, it feels like, than there were in an Unexpected Journey, which had a lot of "episodes" but didn't split its narrative in so many directions - some of which work better than others. As in the previous film, there are still slow patches in the story, but they feel fewer and further between here. However, the narrative, which eventually becomes split between no fewer than four threads (Bilbo and the main company of Dwarves, Gandalf and Sauron, Legolas and Tauriel, the Dwarves who get left behind and Bard (Luke Evans), a human with a connection to Smaug), which themselves each get split into mini threads, is a bit scattered and unfocused. While the previous series also had a split narrative, it still felt like every piece was moving towards the same point at more or less the same speed, and each individual film felt like it had its own sense of purpose; here there's a juggling act between three separate villains (Smaug, Sauron, and the Orcs), only two of whom are really connected, as well as a love triangle plot between Legolas, Tauriel, and Kili, and the separate quests of Thorin and Bard to restore their families' legacies back to glory. Although The Desolation of Smaug has a lot of great moments (particularly after it finally gets to Smaug), a fair bit of the story feels like it's merely setting the table for the next film. Still, it is an improvement on An Unexpected Journey, picking up the storytelling pace even as it loads on characters and subplots.

Much of what's really good about The Desolation of Smaug are the things which have been good across both series. The world that director Peter Jackson has captured on screen is never less than stunning, whether he's guiding you through the Elf kingdom, the ruins of the Lonely Mountain, or the creepy Dol Guldor where Sauron and the Orcs have set up camp, and the many action pieces are exciting and well executed. It has compelling, complex heroes in Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin, and finds a bit of humor courtesy of the buffoonish Master of Lake-town (played by the always welcome Stephen Frye), which brings a bit of fun to a film which might otherwise have been bogged down in desolation. Although I'm not really down with the fact that Tauriel - whom Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro invented for the film - apparently couldn't be worked into the story without being saddled with a love plot (the triangle is easily the least compelling thing about the film), I ultimately liked the character and Lily's performance. All in all, I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug despite its flaws and, if the rise in quality between the previous film and this one is any indication of how the series will end, then I'm very much looking forward to There and Back Again at the end of this year.

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