The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug review: are we there yet?

The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug yellow light

Smaug is a magnificent cinematic creation… but there’s no good reason it takes so damn long to get to him.
I’m “biast” (pro): Cumberbatch! Armitage! Freeman!

I’m “biast” (con): didn’t love Jackson’s first chapter

I have read the source material many times (and I love it)

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The story so far: Bilbo Baggins of the Shire has been shanghaied along on a quest with dwarf king-without-portfolio Thorin and his kinsmen-subjects to retake the Lonely Mountain, former realm of the dwarfs, from Smaug the dragon. They’ve only just about gotten past the bend in the road by the end of the first film, but Bilbo does manage to secretly acquire a magic ring which makes the wearer invisible. Meanwhile, Gandalf the Gray, Wizard Esq., is totally freaking out because an ancient bad guy appears to be awakening from some sort of slumber, and so he takes a bunch of meetings with elves, who Know Things. Memos about darkness and evil are produced.

Now, Part 2.

There’s a fantastic 90-minute movie here. Alas, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug runs two hours and 40 minutes. The length wouldn’t be a problem if it felt like most of it mattered. But, as with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it doesn’t. It’s like Peter Jackson is making a movie — a three-part, nine-hour movie — set in 1918 and desperately wants us to care about the outcome of World War II, a generation away and far over the horizon, when we already know how it ends anyway. And he wants us to care only in a grand but generic sense, disconnected from any well-drawn characters we can empathize with here. Just going, “Oooo, Hitler!” isn’t enough. “War is coming,” Gandalf (Ian McKellen: The Wolverine, The Golden Compass) intones ominously here (and not in the presence of Bilbo or his dwarvish traveling companions, who don’t have the tiniest inkling that something nefarious might be coalescing, not to come to a head for many decades still). All I could think was, “Oh, you mean that war we’ve already seen won and done?” (That would be in The Lord of the Rings, but frankly, I don’t know why anyone who hadn’t seen those films would be bothering with these, or why I feel the need to explain.) Gandalf is worried. Fine. But he’s not someone we readily identify with. He’s a wizard — his whole point here is to be mysterious and inscrutable and unknowable. If might be hard enough to feel his worry even if we didn’t know how that far-distant looming war would turn out.

The problems here are all the same ones repeated, then, from Part 1. There’s little immediate or urgent about most of what we see onscreen here… except when the focus is on Bilbo. And not only because Martin Freeman (The World’s End, Sherlock), as the hobbit, is delicious and hilarious and represents just about the most perfect casting of any movie role ever. It’s because nothing else beyond what happens to him feels like an organic, satisfying story. Some unseen narrative force knows that this meant to be Bilbo’s tale and so has chosen to fill only his moments with real spirit and power. There’s a moment, in the grim shadows of the mythically potent forest Mirkwood, when the dwarf traveling party is attacked by enormous gruesome spiders, and Bilbo loses his magic ring and kills a spider in violent rage — something well beyond the self-defense that has been driving him in the battle to this point — in order to retrieve it… and then he’s horrified at what he’s done. Horrified. Freeman is startling in this moment, and so is the film. This is a good bit for Jackson to have embellished from the book — this is not Tolkien’s moment, nor is the clever addition of letting Bilbo understand the evil speech of the nasty spiders only when he’s in the netherworld he sees while wearing the One Ring. But they’re perfect. They’re the sort of thing we need to appreciate that what we’re witnessing here is a precursor to the War of the Ring.

What we don’t need? Legolas, for one. I mean, Yay, Orlando Bloom (The Three Musketeers, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End), but there’s no reason for the elf’s presence. Except to be able to toss him into some unengaging, overlong videogame action bits: Oh, hey, now you get to play Legolas fighting the orc captain! *yawn* We don’t need the wholly-Jackson-invented character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly: Real Steel, The Hurt Locker). Sure, it’s cool that she’s an elf warrior who kicks lots of orc butt, and I get Jackson’s motivation: to bring a female presence into a male-dominated story. But this is still a hugely, overwhelmingly male-dominated story (which is okay: some stories need to be that). And we certainly don’t need a badass chick elf if it seems like the only reason she’s here is to set up a ridiculous romantic triangle between her, Legolas, and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones). (Yeah, really. Ugh.)

But you know what? All the pointless tangents in which Gandalf rides off to fret about Sauron returning, and the political squabbling among horrible humans in Laketown (watch for Stephen Colbert’s cameo here!), and the endless strategy conversations among orcs? All of them can be forgiven — almost — because the final 40 minutes or so are incredible. For this is when Bilbo (finally) descends into the Lonely Mountain, and meets Smaug the dragon.

Oh my goodness. Smaug is a magnificent cinematic creation, part motion-capture CGI and part voiceover magic and all Benedict Cumberbatch (The Fifth Estate, Star Trek Into Darkness). Wait, that sounds like an insult… except, well, yeah, he makes Smaug sexy, which a gigantic fire-breathing dragon should be, if in a terrifying way, as Smaug is. Finally, too, there is a sense of true urgency to the story before us, as Bilbo’s life depends on how sweetly he can talk his way out of this mess, as Thorin (Richard Armitage: Captain America: The First Avenger) is caught in the terrible grip of the seductive dwarf jewel the Arkenstone.

Dammit, but by the final line of the film — delivered by Bilbo, in another moment in which Freeman is glorious — I was totally gripped, and clamoring for the third and final film. It just shouldn’t have taken so long to get there, and I still don’t know how Jackson is going to fill three hours of There and Back Again The Battle of the Five Armies.

Note: The 48FPS version of the film was not shown to critics, so I saw this in the usual 24FPS.

see also:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies review

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