Although I may be among the minority, I genuinely loved the first installment of The Hobbit (aka An Unexpected Journey). Others lamented the weird, long, eccentric dinner scene at Bilbo’s house; I celebrated it. Others lamented the whimsy of the film and decried it because it wasn’t The Lord of the Rings 2.0. I knew it at least shouldn’t have been that. The Hobbit is a very different literary animal than LotR, and An Unexpected Journey captured the tone of the book almost perfectly. Yeah, there were a few weird parts with Radagast’s oversized bunnies and Azog the Defiler, but it all worked for me because the tone was about spot on, even with some of the inclusions from the LotR appendices and The Silmarillion (another of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s works about Middle-Earth).
Unfortunately, The Desolation of Smaug has lost nearly all of that, in addition to its main character, Bilbo.
Yes, among a number of smaller problems, there are two main issues in part two of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films, and the first is that this film no longer feels like The Hobbit. The story does take a decidedly more serious turn in the book, but it’s also still full of bright eyed adventure, even into the depths of Mirkwood Forest, where half of this movie takes place. That’s lost somewhere in this movie. It’s not immediate, but gradually I felt like I was watching The Lord of the Rings all over again, albeit an inferior one that still carried many of the CGI trappings of its more fantastical prequel. There’s an incongruity to what’s being presented visually in this movie, even down to the action.
To the the joyful tittering of many, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) makes a reappearance in the movie, alongside a new elf – so new that she’s not even a Tolkien creation – named Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), and they’re a big part of the problem. Again, I fear I must reference the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings to explain why. In LotR, the audience’s primary stand-ins among the cast of characters are the hobbits: Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. Those four are ill-equipped for the journey upon which they find themselves, so naturally a bit of hero worship might spring up as they venture forth with the finest warriors men, elves, and dwarves have to offer. It’s natural that we might see characters like Aragorn and Legolas achieving feats which could be considered superhuman. But this doesn’t fit in The Hobbit, even though it’s otherwise more of an old legend or family story than The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit is an adventure story, a quest that’s open ended and without ostensible hurry in a way The Lord of the Rings never was. It’s a story about a group of capable individuals working hard together to achieve something none of them could have individually. Even Thorin. How many of the dwarves can you name? Does it matter? With minor exception they function as a single unity, and as we’re shown, Bilbo as as capable and as needy as any of them.
But then The Desolation of Smaug encounters elves, and this stylistic expectation is blown away in favor of people shooting arrows out of the air with other arrows (yes, this happens at least once). It’s appropriately foreign, but it’s also utterly incongruous with the more whimsical visual style of The Hobbit. Legolas and Tauriel don’t fit in this story. Elves do. Transcendent, nearly untouchable warriors do not. I’ve taken a fairly lengthy digression now into this rather particular point, but when I say this doesn’t feel like The Hobbit anymore, this is the kind of thing I’m talking about. It’s this and twenty other little things that depart from the tone the first movie set so capably.
So that’s the first big issue; now I’ll address the second one. The Desolation of Smaug is lacking a main character. That’s not to say Bilbo’s not the character in focus more than anyone else, but he’s no longer the character through whom we see the story, as he is in both An Unexpected Journey and the book. Thorin (Richard Armitage) has a claim as the main character in this installment, and for bits here and there Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is certainly our protagonist. Even Kili, Tauriel, and Legolas have moments where they’re definitively the one whose story is presented. Far too often, Bilbo disappears into the tapestry of this larger Lord of the Rings prequel tale that Jackson and Co. are trying to weave (which is doubly too bad because Martin Freeman continues to give an excellent performance). It hurts the story, and really it feels like part 2 has no narrative or character arc at all.
I walked out of the theater after the movie and told a friend it felt like I had just marathoned a TV show. Desolation of Smaug in no way feels like a unified story. It’s a collection of events that, rather than forming the emotional second act, are just plot filler, and only moderately interesting plot filler at that. There’s also, as alluded to above, some fairly sizeable chunks of movie with Gandalf that have nothing to do with The Hobbit story proper. For sake of avoiding spoilers, this isn’t the place to go into exactly how, when, or why certain parts of the plot fell so flat, but suffice it for now to say that they do, and the audience losing sight of what Bilbo things about everything that’s going on is a big reason why.
I’ve made it 900 words now without so much of a mention of the dragon from whom the title is taken, so I guess I should take a moment before I wrap this up to address him. Benedict Cumberbatch’s (admittedly very heavily assisted) voice proves a great fit for Smaug, and although the character ends up being shown way too much, whoever did the design on him did a great job. I wish he would have been on display a little more enigmatically (this would have helped explain his apparent chattiness in the third act as well), but in terms of the question, “Is the dragon cool?” Yeah, he’s cool, he’s just not a show-stealer.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
About an hour into The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug I found myself thinking, As a Tolkien fan this is a lot of fun, but man, this does not work as a standalone movie, even one in a series. The volume of knowledge expected of the audience to get everything one might out of The Desolation of Smaug is staggering, and it would seem the cause is that it sees itself as one small part of a much bigger story. That’s an ok attitude, I suppose, but there’s a lot that just doesn’t sit well about this film. It no longer has that stylistic and tonal peculiarity that I so loved about the first Hobbit film, it loses sight of its main character, leading to some very misguided narrative choices, and to boot, it’s not even technically stellar. There were a number of camera issues that I didn’t even talk about above.
If you like Tolkien stuff, let’s not kid ourselves: you’re going to see this movie. If, however, this would be your entry into all things Middle-Earth then stay away! There are better Tolkien films (and books) out there. The Desolation of Smaug will certainly prove essential for all who wish to see part three, There and Back Again, but know that you’re getting yourself into a bit of a slog here.