The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Directed By: Peter Jackson

Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, and James Nesbitt

"The lord of silver fountains.  The king of carven stone.  The king beneath the mountain shall come into his own.  And the bells shall ring in gladness at the mountain king's return.  But all shall fail in sadness, and the lake will shine and burn."
-Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans)

The only thing I have to say about the opening quote is that it has taken too damn long for this to come to fruition.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a good movie in a year of great movies.  With The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and Skyfall being the other billion dollar blockbusters in 2012, Peter Jackson's foray back into Middle Earth stood in mighty company.  It certainly doesn't help that the first Hobbit stood in the shadow of Jackson's Lord of the Rings series, the greatest, grandest trilogy in cinematic history.  Though this adaptation of a children's book could never have lived up to Jackson's first foray into Middle Earth, An Unexpected Journey was indeed a fun romp.  That being said, it had one gaping flaw.  It's too thin.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy is based on a series of three books.  The Hobbit trilogy is only based on one, plus J.R.R. Tolkien's appendix to Lord of the Rings.  With this in mind, it should come as no shock that the money grab of turning a single children's book into a full series of movies is still wreaking havoc upon Middle Earth this weekend with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

In the town of Bree near the Shire, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) meets Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) for the first time.  During their bar-side chat at the Prancing Pony, the wizard convinces the dwarf prince to take back his homeland Erebor from the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).  He notes that he'll need a hobbit to steal the king's jewel known as the Arkenstone from beneath the Lonely Mountain.  It's the only thing that will unite the dwarves under a king.  Twelve months later in the present, Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf, and the dwarves are fleeing Orcs.  After staying at skin-changer Beorn's (Mikael Persbrandt) home for a night, the merry gathering continue on their journey.  There's just one problem.  Gandalf has something else to do, and it's really more important.

The next step in the journey to Erebor for Bilbo and the dwarves is to stay on track in the Mirkwood Forest.  If they lose their path, they'll never find it again. When they do naturally lose it, they have a nasty run-in with giant spiders.  Rescued by elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), they are taken captive and held at the request of Thrandull (Lee Pace), the king of the Woodland Realm and Legolas's father.  Interestingly enough, the company's fate depends on the whims of the very person who betrayed Thorin's grandfather on the day the dragon Smaug arrived in Erebor, Thrandull.  Meanwhile, Gandalf and Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) go to Dol Guldur to investigate the festering evil known as the Necromancer.  They find that their enemy has returned and that the world is in grave danger.

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series stands at a whopping 1,571 pages.  His book The Hobbit is only 310.  There are three movies for each.  You do the math.  I know that director Peter Jackson is tapping into Tolkien's appendices from The Return of the King, but that's not enough to create a rich, engaging three-hour movie, much less three.  Unlike Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit simply cannot be stretched into a trilogy, and it's abundantly clear with The Desolation of Smaug.  With a forced, abrupt beginning and conclusion, this second installment in the trilogy isn't a film that can stand on its own.  It's a choppy trip back to Middle Earth that isn't even all that interesting for the first hour.

I know that Peter Jackson likes to focus on Bilbo as this relatable common man figure, but he shouldn't be the sole focus of a movie this long.  The strength of the LOTR films was that Frodo and Sam weren’t the central focus for three hours straight.  We looked at other members of the fellowship and their adventures.  Martin Freeman certainly gives a solid performance as the crafty burglar hobbit, but there's a more interesting storyline in the film.  Ian McKellen's Gandalf is investigating the return of the enemy.  With McKellen fiercely portraying the Grey Wizard, this side story with the Nazgül and Sauron is far more interesting and thrilling.  I haven't read The Hobbit or Tolkien's appendices, but I'm sure this apocalyptic storyline wasn't part of a children's book.  Trying to appeal to a more mature audience, Jackson should have delved into this much more.

After the long, dry first half of the film, we arrive at Erebor and get to see Smaug.  When the dragon arrives, The Desolation of Smaug is no longer child's play.  This is when things really start to heat up on screen, and I'm not just talking about the thrilling, fiery action sequences that ensue.  Benedict Cumberbatch gives an authoritative, theatrical performance that oozes with menace.  Not only is Smaug brought to life in all his glory by Cumberbatch, but Bilbo, Thorin, and the entire company of dwarves also come to life in a way that they hadn't in the film series thus far.  With their feet being held to the fire, there's now more depth to these characters. 

We get a host of fresh faces in The Desolation of Smaug.  First and foremost, Orlando Bloom picks up his bow and reprises his role as the Woodland elf Legolas.  It's certainly refreshing to see Bloom back in this role, and he reminds us just how badass he can be on the big screen.  However, it's a little odd since he has no Gimli to balance him out.  When he's not in action, he's a brooding, lovesick elf.  As Legolas's love interest Tauriel, Evangeline Lilly (Lost, Real Steel) certainly shines as she pounds Orcs to a pulp.  Beyond action sequences, her Tinkerbell-inspired role amounts to nothing more than a token female to add to the film.  Lee Pace and Luke Evans are also interesting additions as the isolationist Elf King Thrandull and the noble Bard the Bowman respectively.

All in all, I have mixed feelings about The Desolation of Smaug.  On the one hand, I love Middle Earth and can never get enough of it.  On the other hand, it's too long and too bloated.  It's the byproduct of one of the most ridiculous money grabs in cinematic history.  By the time I really started enjoying myself, the film was coming to a wrap.  Despite a strong second act, I have no choice but to give The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug a strong 0.06% rating.  This is really disappointing for a film of this scale and scope.  Have a few rounds of merlot with this one (and maybe a little bit of the Halflings’ Leaf).