The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,
directed by Peter Jackson
(Warner Bros., 2013)

I can't believe I'm saying this, but in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug -- part two of Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy to The Lord of the Rings, the dragon is on screen far too long.

Jackson was criticized by some for the many things he cut from J.R.R. Tolkien's LotR novels to make them fit into three feature-length films. Now, he's turning the much shorter Hobbit novel into a trilogy of equal length, giving him the exact opposite problem -- he needs additional material to fill in the gaps.

Sometimes, it works. Tauriel, for instance -- an elven character played by Evangeline Lilly who does not appear in Tolkien's works at all -- is a nice addition to the story, although she's used to create a nonsensical love triangle for no other reason I can think of than Hollywood's fondness for love triangles. The journeys of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) apart from the dwarves -- which are left vague in The Hobbit novel but are fleshed out in Tolkien's appendices to LotR -- are also solid fillers, giving the audience a sense of the events building toward the return of Sauron and the coming war.

Less successful is the continuing saga of an orc pack that hates Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and hunts him ceaselessly over hill and dale -- they're overused here, especially when they silently invade Laketown and see nary a human outside of the bargeman Bard's (Luke Evans') house. And the baiting of Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) goes into overtime; rather than a fairly brief exchange between the dragon and the eponymous hobbit/burglar Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), after which Smaug is unleashed on the unsuspecting lake dwellers below, the movie gives us an extended sequence -- at times more Keystone Kops than Tolkien; I expected at some points to hear the soundtrack replaced by "Yakety Sax" -- as they run and rampage through the dwarven halls, smashing through stone and springing liquid-gold traps at every turn.

It's just too much. While The Hobbit was fairly light-hearted in places, the dragon is supposed to be dark and serious stuff, and this is just goofy.

While some viewers may swoon at the return of Orlando Bloom as the wood elf Legolas, it seems like Jackson took what should have been a fan-service cameo and forced him to stick around for the entire movie. It doesn't help that Bloom, for all his youthful looks, still appears older than his future days in LotR.

So, there are problems here.

But there's also Freeman, who is absolutely perfect as Bilbo. There's Smaug, who is a brilliantly conceived -- if overused -- dragon. There's a great bit with giant spiders and a cool scene with blue butterflies and Gandalf is all dire and dramatic and Tauriel is all hot-elfy ... in short, there's a lot of fun adventure crammed into 160 minutes, and I'm eager to see how the trilogy plays out.

review by
Tom Knapp

28 December 2013

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