Review: "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"

Mark Pokorny/Warner Bros.  MARTIN FREEMAN as Bilbo in the fantasy adventure "THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG," a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Ma WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER PICTURES INC.
Mark Pokorny/Warner Bros. Pictures
MARTIN FREEMAN as Bilbo in the fantasy adventure “THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG.”

In the liveliest and arguably best scene of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” Orlando Bloom’s Legolas deftly navigates across a river, bouncing along the heads of this trilogy’s protagonists while being the arrow-slinging, goblin slayer that made him such a fan favorite in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Mark Pokorny/Warner Bros. Pictures Orlando Bloom as Legolas.
Mark Pokorny/Warner Bros. Pictures
Orlando Bloom as Legolas.

It’s a somewhat fitting statement indicative of the series thus far. Despite Director/Co-writer Peter Jackson’s grand intentions, “The Hobbit” trilogy is but a mere stepping stone to his fantasy genre-redefining LOTR series. Two films into “The Hobbit” trilogy, the majority of the best scenes have heavily featured LOTR characters or foreshadowed events of major significance.

It’s almost as if Jackson is saying “Stay tuned! This whole Middle Earth saga is about to get a lot more interesting!”

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures GRAHAM McTAVISH as Dwalin, KEN STOTT as Balin, MARTIN FREEMAN as Bilbo, RICHARD ARMITAGE as Thorin, and WILLIAM KIRCHER as Bifur.
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
GRAHAM McTAVISH as Dwalin, KEN STOTT as Balin, MARTIN FREEMAN as Bilbo, RICHARD ARMITAGE as Thorin, and WILLIAM KIRCHER as Bifur.

For now, “Smaug” provides some hope that the series has found some much needed momentum after the aimless first chapter, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” offering some inspired action scenes, more engaging characters and an adversary worthy of a large-scale fantasy epic.

Picking up from “Journey,” Thorin (Richard Armitage) leads his fellow dwarves, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) on a quest to reclaim their homeland, Erebor. It won’t be easy as they first have to remove the fire-breathing dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch, “12 Years a Slave”) from the kingdom.

Besides Bilbo outwitting Gollum to claim the One Ring of Power, not a lot happened in “Journey,” so it’s not required viewing before seeing “Smaug.” While “Journey” was heavy on the singing, walking and talking, Jackson and credited co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro double up on the action in this middle chapter pitting the group in thrilling battles against giant spiders, goblins and Smaug.

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures IAN McKELLEN as Gandalf and SYLVESTER McCOY as Radagast
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
IAN McKELLEN as Gandalf and SYLVESTER McCOY as Radagast

Thankfully, this time out, the special effects and CGI creations don’t have that plastic sheen to them and look more an actual part of the world, which was especially important with Smaug. The set design by Ra Vincent, a longtime LOTR collaborator, is some of the series’ best.

While the dwarves again get the short end of the character development stick — audience members unfamiliar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel will be hard pressed to name four dwarves — the same can’t be said for the new cast members, all of whom have welcome layers to their characters.

Mark Pokorny/Warner Bros. Pictures LUKE EVANS as Bard and JOHN BELL as Bain.
Mark Pokorny/Warner Bros. Pictures
LUKE EVANS as Bard and JOHN BELL as Bain.

Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans, “Fast & Furious 6”) struggles to determine if the dwarves will save or ruin the land while the Wood Elves consider their own investment in Thorin’s quest. Lee Pace is a fantastic addition to the cast as Thranduil, the secretive Wood Elf king.

Thorin and Thranduil have a tremendous scene that hints at the intriguing dynamics of the elf/dwarf animosity and that is more engaging than Thorin’s dragon quest. It’s a bit disappointing that Evangeline Lilly’s elf warrior Tauriel, the film’s lone female character with a significant role, promptly gets thrust into a love triangle with Legolas and a dwarf.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER PICTURES INC. EVANGELINE LILLY as Tauriel
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
EVANGELINE LILLY as Tauriel

The actors aren’t asked to do a lot as Jackson regrettably placed more of a premium on the action — the fights would have even more impact if there was the threat of a beloved character getting harmed. LOTR had a far stronger balance of character development and action making each conflict more meaningful.

Save Armitage and Pace’s face off, there’s no moment where the actors get to go beyond the makeup and costumes and carry a scene solely based on their talents. Action junkies will appreciate the battles, but there’s the sense that this film could be so much more.

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures LEE PACE as Thranduil
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
LEE PACE as Thranduil

Other “Journey” issues remain. At 161 minutes, “Smaug” feels too bloated especially since that time isn’t used to give the audience a reason to care about this quest beyond the dwarves needing something to do.

There’s just not enough story here to merit a trilogy/nine hour investment for viewers. From a financial perspective, it makes sense to stretch out the tale over three films, but it certainly hurts the pacing.

Unlike previous entries in the series, Jackson doesn’t go for a smooth conclusion to ease into the next installment and leaves viewers on a cliffhanger so prepare for some audience outrage.

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures WILLIAM KIRCHER as Bifur, JOHN CALLEN as Oin, RICHARD ARMITAGE as Thorin, and KEN STOTT as Balin in the fantasy adventure "THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG."
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
WILLIAM KIRCHER as Bifur, JOHN CALLEN as Oin, RICHARD ARMITAGE as Thorin, and KEN STOTT as Balin in the fantasy adventure “THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG.”

Two-thirds of the way through “The Hobbit” trilogy and it’s apparent that while this won’t match the level of excellence of the LOTR films, Jackson still finds a little more magic left in Middle Earth.

Rating: 7 out of 10

  • Hmmm, this is pretty much what I expected to hear. I will, of course, go see the movie, because Tolkien pretty much defined my childhood, but I’m not expecting much out of it. I’m not a fan of Orlando Bloom, and I wish they had kept Bilbo more childish. Glad to hear it wasn’t completely terrible though!

  • I haven’t read The Hobbit in forever so I’m curious. How should Bilbo be portrayed?

  • He’s very childish, innocent and foolish. He has redeeming qualities also, but overall he is a fool (as Gandalf would say). The whole book is about him becoming a hero and learning to look outside his village. There is NO backstory in the Hobbit because Bilbo knew nothing of international politics or other peoples. The action terrifies him, and most of the time he doesn’t know what’s going on.

  • That’s definitely a more interesting way to go and it’s funny as the LOTR Bilbo seems to be a bit more foolish and mischievous than The Hobbit’s version.

  • I think they were really looking for a couple American film heroes. This story isn’t really supposed to have any (that are well-developed characters at least, Bard is the closest you get). I’ve reconciled that they are making it a series of money making movies, so Thorin is hot and Bilbo is a bit of a hero. I’m just hoping the dragon looks good!

  • Good review Jeffrey. While it definitely did work a bit better than the first, it still wasn’t by much as there was still some problems I had with this, that I seemed to keep on having with that movie. However, I think, or better yet, I hope that Peter Jackson gets his act together so he can end on a good note for this next, and hopefully last, installment.

  • Thanks as always man!
    I’m gonna be optimistic he still has one great Middle Earth movie left in him.

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  • This is about what I had expected to hear, which is unfortunate. I think the main problem with “The Hobbit” movie is that the quest isn’t very epic. In LotR, it’s all of Middle Earth on the line, the quest to save the world AND restore the race of men to it’s former glory.

    In Hobbit we have some Dwarves who want their gold back which has an effect on…well those dwarves and that is it. If they don’t get their gold back…oh well.

    Which probably wouldn’t be so bad if, as you said, it wasn’t being extended to a 9 hour trilogy. I think Jackson et. al. could have made a decent trilogy with each film clocking in at 90 minutes. I don’t understand this desire for studios to have 3 hours films. Sounds like a rentable (unless I win some free tickets). :-

  • You’re exactly right. The dwarves’ quest seems so tiny and insignificant that Jackson has to keep reminding everyone of the bigger picture throughout their adventure.

    I find myself enjoying 90-minute films much more simply because the filmmakers pack the essential elements in and edit it much tighter. For me, if a movie is more than two hours it needs to have a great story, but three hours needs to be an epic story and adventure.

  • Chris

    The movie is EPIC! So proud of Peter and the cast!

  • My thoughts exactly! I have gotten into a habit of flipping over the DVD cases and if the movie is over 2 hours, I am on Rotten Tomatoes trying to decide if it’s worth my time. I’ll take a chance on a 90 minute movie, but 2.5 hours of a mediocre film is just not worth it, especially when you can see where the edits could have been made.

    So I appreciate you watching all the crap movies for me 😉

  • That’s what I’m here for! 😉

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