Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
It’s not that a movie such as “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is review-proof as much as it is very likely that potential moviegoers (meaning all of you) already know their level of engagement.
You saw the first one and wouldn’t miss seeing Smaug slithering through the dark ruins of Erebor for all the gold therein; you saw the first one and decided expanding J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s novel “The Hobbit” into a “Lord of the Rings”-style trilogy was folly at best and hubris at worst; or you have ignored the whole enterprise.
Almost nobody who skipped the first one is thinking, “Eh, maybe I’ll get on board now.”
All of that said, direct Peter Jackson improves markedly upon “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” There is far more questing and far less talking about questing. There is a canny interpolation of other Tolkien material. Characters who don’t even appear in the novel are key to the dynamic, engaging action.
And there is a really, really big dragon.
The script, written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, is a big hunk of the middle of the novel “The Hobbit” with some bits of “The Quest of Erebor” from Tolkien’s “Unfinished Tales.” (Purists are invited to direct their cards and letters to one P. Jackson of the Shire.)
“The Desolation of Smaug” opens with a secret meeting between Gandalf the Gray (Ian McKellen, still the best at playing enigmatic old guys with superpowers) and throne-heir dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, unrecognizable except for his coal-black eyes). It is time to get the dwarves’ underground kingdom (and their sacred Arkenstone with it) back from Smaug.
To that end, as we know from the book and first movie, Gandalf recruits Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, always terrific) to Thorin’s band of dwarves to liberate the Lonely Mountain. “Desolation” is the meat of that journey.
Sure, there’s plenty of yakking about interracial and political conflict. After the party arrives in Mirkwood forest, they find themselves at the mercy of King Thranduil (Lee Pace) and his Silvan elves, who really can’t stand dwarves and jail everyone. Bilbo and his increasingly addictive magic ring to the rescue!
And we’re off, careening around often gorgeous, sometimes dank New Zealand, which really should get some sort of award for playing Middle-earth.
This is a far more action-packed affair than the previous, scene-setting film. Suffering only from the absence of Andy Serkis’ revoltingly charismatic Gollum, “Desolation” moves along at a sometimes furious clip, which is all one can really ask of a three-hour movie about a dragon.
And it’s those action sequences where Jackson’s roots as a cut-rate Spielberg shine. The party’s battle with an army of giant spiders makes wise and creepy use of 3-D. Bilbo’s ingenious escape from Mirkwood, involving barrels, a rushing river and battling orcs while in barrels on a rushing river, is the movies’s kinetic, joyous high point.
The liberties that Jackson has taken are smart ones. The elf warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom and nope, he wasn’t in the original novel) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, looking so much like Liv Tyler’s Arwen that it’s jarring), a character made up by Jackson and Walsh for the final two movies, are both excellent additions to the party. It is viscerally thrilling to see Legolas and Tauriel fire arrow after arrow into orcs.
(Seriously, between this and “Catching Fire,” one hopes there are a mess of bow-and-arrow sets under Christmas trees this year.)
By the time the party gets to Laketown, with its ground-down humans and obnoxious despot (Stephen Fry, it is always good to see you), we know it is almost Smaug-o-clock. Jackson knows that if Smaug works, the movie works. And it’s nice to report that a motion-captured Benedict Cumberbatch, complete with sneering, depths-of-hell voice, is perfect.
Jackson loves to use digital filmmaking to mess with the viewer’s sense of scale, whether it’s a dwarf-size Richard Armitage addressing humans twice his size or long, zooming shots of mountains and castles and Babel-size statuary that exist only in computers.
But it’s in the vaults of the dwarf kingdom, where Smaug lies buried under millions of golden coins, that Jackson really cuts loose, contrasting brave little Bilbo’s nerve-wracking quest with this gigantic, fire-breathing lizard, whose every shudder can be felt in the mountain above and the town below, whose bellows make his stomach glow red before melting metal, whose snide arrogance is at least as scary as his sheer destructive power. By the time Smaug unfurls his wings and takes flight, Jackson has done a bang-up job of reminding viewers why Smaug has endured as one of fantasy’s iconic badguys.
Okay, maybe you should see it for the dragon.