My teeth are swords. My claws, spears!
And so we take another jaunt into Middle-Earth with Peter Jackson’s latest epic, “The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug”. It’s true, a lot of people found “Unexpected Journey” to be a bit of a let down (I wasn’t one of them), but this follow up manages to surpass the first in pretty much every regard. We may never look back at “The Hobbit” trilogy on the same level as “The Lord of the Rings”, but “Desolation of Smaug” comes damn close.
“The Desolation of Smaug” joins Bilbo, Gandalf, and their Dwarf companions on the last leg of their journey to the Lonely Mountain. En route, they fight their way through the spiders of Mirkwood, deal with the Wood Elves, and dodge orc hunting parties. All of this just so they can get their chance to do battle with a fire breathing dragon. Along the way, Gandalf must leave to deal with the Necromancer (mentioned in the first film), who is raising a dark army in secret. Right away, the first difference between this and the first film is that a lot more actually happens.
My wings are a hurricane!
While “Unexpected Journey” had a few pacing problems, “Desolation of Smaug” flows quite nicely. It has a very “Two Towers” feel to it, actually. Rather than a fifteen minute intro, followed by twenty minutes of slapstick, “Desolation” throws the company of fourteen right into the mix, being hunted by a pack of orcs on wargs. Soon they meet, Beorn (the skinchanger), and a bunch of Tolkien fanatics explode. I will say, a few scenes actually pass too quickly; Beorn’s appearance lasts less than five minutes and he’s never seen again. It was a bit of a letdown. At the other end of the spectrum, I could’ve been perfectly happy with about half as much screen-time for Legolas (never my favourite member of the Fellowship), and the movie wouldn’t have suffered any kind of loss.
The action is quite impressive compared to the first film’s brief fight scenes. The stand out of course is the barrel riding escape from the Elves of Mirkwood. It’s got tension, big stunts, great CGI, and a few great comedic moments (Bombur really shines for his few seconds at center stage). Of course, the climactic fight inside Erebor against the dragon, Smaug, was terrific. Peter Jackson and his effects team really outdid themselves. I might go so far as to say, that Smaug stands side by side with Gollum in the realm of motion-capture creations. The dragon is terrifying and brilliantly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose devilish voice and delivery compliment the flying terror’s personality greatly.
I am fire. I am… death!
The entire regular cast already seem to have disappeared into their roles, which is great, and helps keep the continuity and flow of the series going. New addition, Evangeline Lilly stands out to me. Her character, Tauriel (created for the film), who I was quite wary of, didn’t bother me in the slightest. In fact, she is quite likable, and kicks ass with the best of them. The romantic love-triangle might have been a TAD forced, but what can you do? Tolkien’s works don’t really lend themselves well to added love stories.
If I had to give “the Desolation of Smaug” one weakness, it’s the reliance on CGI. I understand that today special effects are probably cheaper and easier than ever before, but it’s all a bit much. A giant fire breathing dragon, an expansive underground kingdom, these things need CGI. But one thing I loved about “Lord of the Rings” was the practical makeup and costumes. When we watched a company of orcs fighting over which Hobbit to eat, it was real people in brilliantly hideous getup. We still see some costumes and makeup for the orcs in “The Hobbit”, but the two named orcs (Azog and Bolg) who we see most often are entirely motion-capture. It’s distracting.
Overall, “The Desolation of Smaug” raises the “Hobbit” series to new heights, building and improving upon all the best parts of the first film. Boldly ending on a major cliffhanger, I know a lot of people will be holding their breath for the hopefully thrilling conclusion to come. The trilogy seems to have found its stride now, and I think “There and Back Again” could very well be this series’ “Return of the King”. With the Battle of Five Armies still on the horizon, there should be plenty of intense action to come.