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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
When Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, debuted to middling critical reviews, I was a bit worried. The first three Lord of the Rings movies were all massively critically praised and won numerous end-of-year awards. They have permeated pop culture and sold millions upon millions of copies of DVDs and Blu Ray discs in the years since release. The lower reviews for The Hobbit worried me a bit, and I wondered if maybe Jackson had continued to lose a step, his last few films being fairly disappointing (particularly the underwhelming The Lovely Bones). When I first saw An Unexpected Journey, however, I was relieved to find that I actually enjoyed it. I enjoyed it more than most critics had. I liked the film so much that it was one of my favorite mainstream movies released last year.
In the sequel, Desolation of Smaug, the band of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, still the highlight as far as I’m concerned), along with wizard Gandalf the Grey (an always excellent Ian McKellen) and plucky Bilbo (Martin Freeman, who really has found his courage) continue their journey towards the Lonely Mountain, where they will face off against Smaug, the great and terrible dragon who has taken the Dwarven homeland for himself. Along the way they face off against elves, spiders, and orcs, traversing the many varied and beautiful landscapes and green screens of New Zealand Middle Earth. As a middle chapter, Desolation of Smaug works incredibly well. It is very quickly paced, picking up where the last film left off without a beat. This was an odd transition for me, as I haven’t watched An Unexpected Journey in about six months. But after 10 minutes or so, I was totally on board.
The film has a lot going for it, first and foremost its excellent action sequences. Still a bit cartoony (though less so than the first film), the action sequences are nonetheless brilliant. Desolation of Smaug features what may be two of the best action setpieces in film this year alone. The first half of the film is highlighted by an excellent river chase and the final third of the film is an absolutely fantastic sequence set in the abandoned Dwarven city of Erebor, where our heroes finally face off against Smaug himself. The film is a lot better paced and the action is spread fairly evenly throughout. The three main leads – Armitage, McKellen, and Martin – continue to do great work, rivaling anything from the original LOTR trilogy. The movie is also much more violent than An Unexpected Journey, and much more mature in tone. The last third of the film – primarily the stuff with Smaug himself – is absolutely brilliant and terrifying in places. Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice work is fantastic. It is perhaps the best example of how to do a role like that.
The main criticisms of the series so far – that the Hobbit films are more childish and less serious than its LOTR film adaptation cousins, that the films are soulless cash grabs, and that the films don’t inspire the same sense of awe and wonder as the earlier films – still stand as mostly true. Desolation of Smaug is filled with extraneous CGI and 3D shots, it is entirely too long (even though it is shorter than Journey), and while it takes a turn for the darker and more mature, it still isn’t as deep, dark, and interesting as the film trilogy that preceded it. The biggest offense Smaug commits is probably its character bloat. Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel isn’t so much an interesting character as she is a plot device in places and a needless love interest in another. Luke Evans’ Bard has potential, but I gather most of that potential will take place in the third and final film. There’s a random wolfman dude in the first half hour of the movie who basically does nothing. I’m not even going to take the time to look up the actor who plays him.
The other big issue with Desolation of Smaug is that it ends on an absolutely horrendous cliffhanger. I don’t want to and shouldn’t have to wait a year to see what’s going to happen to close out this trilogy. It is an old and tired complaint that these films should never have been a trilogy in the first place, and the absolutely horrendous ending of Smaug is proof positive of that. Waiting another year to close things out, especially after such an ending, is going to be rather trying. Neither the first nor the second LOTR film ended in such an unresolved manner. It doesn’t help matters that Gandalf is reduced to essentially a side character in the film, and that he shares a good lot of his screen time with Radagast, a character that is way less entertaining than Peter Jackson most likely intended. The subplot with Gandalf and Radagast isn’t nearly as compelling as the stuff with Smaug and the dwarves, and that’s just plain unfortunate. I guess it will play out better in the third film.
Despite the criticisms, Desolation of Smaug is largely an improvement over An Unexpected Journey. A whole lot of the more childlike humor has been excised from the series completely. The film is more focused, the action sequences are an absolute riot, and it just feels more like a Peter Jackson film set in Middle Earth (and I actually liked An Unexpected Journey). These films may be completely superfluous, unnecessary, and all the other adjectives you can throw at them, but so far they are a ton of fun. There’s a lot of talent behind and in front of the camera, and Desolation of Smaug is a far better showcase for it than the first installment.