The middle chapter of The Hobbit trilogy has a bad habit. It has a tendency to self-sabotage all of its efforts to reclaim the glory of the early-2000s Middle Earth. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug does a lot rather well but then it nickels and dimes you to death with inconsistencies, problematic developments, and inexplicable interjections. By the end, you’re left looking at a very middling, expensive lackey to an old fellowship.
The Desolation of Smaug is the second part of the three-part The Hobbit film series from Peter Jackson (and, of course, others). It picks up pretty much right where An Unexpected Journey left off, though you wouldn’t know it as this one starts with a flashback and then dives right into in media res with Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves evading an Orc pack.
You should be familiar with the story thus far, but here’s where we’re at: Bilbo gets recruited by the wizard Gandalf to be the master burglar as a group of dwarves attempt to reclaim a jewel and a mountain from a gold-hungry dragon named Smaug, the last of Middle Earth. They just made it through a harrowing encounter with the notoriously deadly Orc leader Azog and now they’re determined to make it to the Lonely Mountain. Also, Gandalf is suspicious of a mysterious necromancer, Smaug utility in future conflicts, and probably a few other things.
(Let’s clear the air right now: a lot of what’s in The Desolation of Smaug (and An Unexpected Journey) is not in the book version of the singular, un-trilogized The Hobbit. And I don’t care about that. If someone wants to tell a story, then tell a story, whether it’s based on one that already exists or not. There are problems in regards to Jackson’s vision of The Hobbit and what Tolkien originally wrote about, but this is Jackson’s own thing. So this will only concern the films and not the book at all.)
And that leads to much of the film being split into two main stories, which isn’t a problem considering Jackson masterfully handled several branching and parallel plots in The Lord of the Rings. For much of the time, we have the dwarves and Bilbo attempting to reach the Lonely Mountain, and for the rest of the time, we have Gandalf off trying to figure out why things are going sideways all over the land.
Strangely enough, though, The Desolation of Smaug is often much more sprawling than the expansive saga of the One Ring. We have so much of the dwarves going through so much happenstance and serendipity that when we see the pointed focus of Gandalf’s story crop up, it’s a massively distracting contrast.
Jackson attempts to rectify this with liberally applied gravitas, but it doesn’t change the fact that these dwarves end up bumbling into a lot of weird encounter and accidental success. You can edit and direct and write words coming out of an actor’s mouth, but you can change major events like being saved at the last second from giant spiders or being freed from prison by an oversight or surviving a huge, bloody battle via precise, cinematic combat tactics that rival The Matrix.
The last part there is actually prime example. The entire scene is about how Bilbo and the dwarves escape from an elvish prison by hopping into some barrels and floating down a river. It last for about seven minutes, but it goes on about 30 seconds too long and might as well be an entire hour of the movie. At its prime, it is a thrilling action sequence that moves us from one part of the story to another.
At its excess, a scant 30-second blink in this nearly three-hour film, it takes away meaning from the entire adventure. It shows that we have no reason to worry about the lives of these brave little souls. They are so oddly proficient at killing and surviving improbable predicaments that this is more like watching a Rube Goldberg machine for pissing off a dragon instead of one fretting about the drama inherent in battle.
One dwarf takes out roughly a dozen Orcs simply by being fat and randomly bouncing around the shores of the river like a basketball. Then, when a dwarf’s life is actually in danger, we don’t care at all because, hey, these guys are invincible.
Gandalf’s portion fares slightly better. It makes you wonder why Jackson didn’t choose instead to develop and fully fleshed out side story of Gandalf wandering off and trying to convince people problems are arising, leading into the ultimate “I told you so” moment of The Lord of the Rings. It’s like a laser compared to Thorin’s scattershot quest for the Arkenstone.
There’s a love triangle that doesn’t really need to be there. If we’d left it at a platonic state, we still would have gotten the impetus for the action it drives; then we’d have a one-way street of romance, which is much more dramatic. And there’s a setup for immense payoff that is actually part of the cliffhanger at the end, and we can only hope it does cash out nicely in the last film.
If you can ignore all that, though, there’s a lovely film here. The acting is just tremendous. Martin Freeman has a knack for imbuing nearly imperceptible bits of humanity into absolutely inconceivable situations. When he stoops ever so slightly as he tries to be silent, when he furrows his brow for only a moment as he considers his response, when he takes a knee in the worst place possible. They’re all choice bits that make it very obvious he’s the Bilbo we need for this exceedingly dire interpretation of an otherwise (relatively) cheery story.
Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf, and he owns it once again. The way he brings the most subtly aged pepper to his somehow perfectly understandable grumbling is ideal for a wizard that has a penchant for disappearing at the worst possible moment and reappearing at the best. And Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug is kind of a revelation. His ability to command your attention with every syllable is incredible. And where do they find such elvish-looking people? Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel somehow surpasses Orlando Bloom as Legolas.
And of course the film is just beautiful. Jackson has an eye for giving the proper references in the massive scope of a rolling hillside or craggy mountaintop. It does, however, highlight where his strengths are in directing action. All of the big battles are wonderful and easy to mentally track. Any close quarters encounters like in Lake-town are kind of rough. It’s hard to keep tabs on who is fighting who and the movement feels awfully slow and casual.
Which brings me to the high frame rate thing. You can, if you so choose, watch The Hobbit films at 48 frames per second, double the average film’s frame rate. A lot of people find this problematic, calling it the soap opera effect. Here’s the gist: as you increase the frame rate, the need for motion interpolation between frames is decreased. This means that movements look a lot crisper, reducing the layer of cognitive disbelief between real life and watching a screen.
Except many people like that layer. When you remove it, you also remove the visual impact many people associate with cinematic displays. The Desolation of Smaug cements my thoughts on the matter: high frame rates work for action sequences where the crystal clear representation makes keeping tabs on everything a lot easier (one of the reasons gamers like higher frame rates as well). But when it’s just closeup shots of people talking, the ability to discern where a fake nose and real skin begins and ends is unfortunate. It also makes quick cutaway reaction shots look strangely stilted.
But you still have a solid arc with fantastic actors and a still stellar score. As each good thing comes up and makes you want to pat the movie on its back, though, something raises its hand and pokes you in the eye. It’s a movie of little mistakes, but those small problems add up very quickly into a lonely mountain of regret. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is not a terrible film, but it could have been a lot better with some focused storytelling.
+ Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Ian McKellen are three cherries atop a great acting sundae
+ Howard Shore’s score still pretty much owns
+ Jackson really knows how to direct large scale action
– Jackson has no idea how to direct small scale action
– The dwarves lead a sprawling story with random branches of no consequence
– Extended moments trivialize the implications of the dwarves and Bilbo’s actions
Final Score: 7 out of 10