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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

| December 13, 2013 | 0 Comments

It is hard to be too critical of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”, the second leg of Peter Jackson’s three-legged trilogy.  Without the final piece in place, it’s hard to know where you stand with this movie.  Like any other “Part 2 of 3”, it suffers from middle child syndrome.  Last year’s underrated opening chapter “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” was a bright and cheery red-blooded adventure so entertaining that it made my 10 best list (I was alone in that).  This second chapter is not as interesting.  It meanders and stumbles.  It has some wonderful action pieces, but you get the feeling that Tolkien’s world is lost in a morass of long fight scenes and special effects.

The major difference between the first chapter and the second one is that the focus has shifted. In the earlier film Jackson maintained a nicely modulated subtext in which Bilbo learns a lesson in personal responsibility.  Given a mission by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) Bilbo rides along with a company of Dwarves on an all-important mission.  This film moves the focus of the story to the Dwarves themselves.  The pint-sized baker’s dozen are on a mission to reclaim their old homeland of Erebor which is seated in an area called The Lonely Mountain.  Long ago, the dwarves were driven out and the place is now inhabited by a fearsome dragon.

The first two-thirds of the movie involve the journey getting to the Lonely Mountain and picking up allies and enemies along the way.  One thing that Jackson is able to accomplish with this second chapter is the sense that things are growing darker.  Bilbo’s earlier journey was cheery and sunny where this one is dark and overcast.  The world seems to be converging on Bilbo and his traveling companions.  Mighty Orcs are asserting their dominance and the dark forces of the world seem to be gathering.  To defend against these forces, the party is joined by a boatman named Bard (Luke Evans); trusty old Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and an elf guard named Turiel (Evangeline Lily) – a creation of Jackson, not Tolkien – whose presence is welcome because it doesn’t impede on the story’s forward momentum.  She’s there to give this male dominated story some much needed Girl Power, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Where the movie comes alive is in its third act, when Bilbo’s true purpose for being on this mission is put into action.  He is recruited to walk into The Lonely Mountain and retrieve The Arkenstone, a mystical jewel that is the stone of power for the Dwarves.  The interiors of Erebor are a marvel of art direction.  Darkened, once glorious, cavernous walls of the castle chambers are packed almost to the ceiling with mountains of gold over which Scrooge McDuck might have wept.  Here Bilbo’s mettle is tested, as he must outwit a particularly ill-tempered dragon named Smaug – voiced with slithery charm by Benedict Cumberbatch.  The sight of Smaug is astonishing.  The special effects team has done a wonderful job of creating a realistic three-dimensional dragon that actually looks flesh and blood.  Even better, he has a personality.  Smaug understands clearly the weight of his own power and influence and he gloats happily.  His movements are reptilian but also somewhat balletic.  Credit must also go to Cumberbatch whose distinctive voice gives the character its snake-like demeanor.

You could only wish that the rest of the movie were that magical.  It isn’t a bad movie, just a very busy and unfocused one.  Jackson is a very busy bee getting the knots untied from the last movie so he can get busy tying new knots for the next one.  The result an extraordinarily busy movie with so much plot that the grandeur and wonderment of Tolkien’s world is only glimpsed in fleeting glances.  When it is all over, you’re left with the feeling that the movie will possibly play better when viewed as a whole with the other two parts.  Standing alone, it’s kind of a mess.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.