The Unexpected Journey continues…
The H-Bomb: Merry little hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continues to accompany a band of dwarves, led by the ever brooding badass, Thorin (Richard Armitage), on their quest to take back their homeland of Erebor, the Kingdom under the Mountain, from the fire breathing dragon, Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). The great wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), who organized this whole escapade, parts company with Bilbo and the gang early on to go in search of The Necromancer, leaving them to their own limited devices for most of the journey. It would seem that for a wise old wizard, Gandalf sure does make a lot of not-so-wise decisions.
Anyhow, as our posse of thigh-high heroes embark on their adventure, they get themselves caught up in a number of hairy situations, running afoul of just about everyone and everything they come across, including elves, giant killer spiders, and some bi-polar bear-man creature, all the while still having that nasty pack of Orcs pursuing them across Middle-earth. It all seems to be more than a simple hobbit can bear, but as it happens, Bilbo won’t face his real challenge until they reach Erebor, when he finally learns the true reason he was asked to tag along on this quest.
That is something that’s best left undiscussed here, but it will require the heroic little hobbit to summon all of his courage, and the power of a certain “precious,” to travel down into the depths of Erebor to face the ferocious Smaug all by himself… suffice it to say, it’s probably in Bilbo’s best interest to just let sleeping dragons lie.
Last year, director Peter Jackson returned to Lord of the Rings land with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first film in a massive, three part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a (relatively short) prequel novel to his Lord of the Rings books. While An Unexpected Journey certainly wasn’t a bad film, it overall failed to live up to the majestic spectacle of Jackson’s original trilogy. Now we arrive at the second part of his Hobbit adaptation, The Desolation of Smaug, which I can say, with the utmost confidence, is far, far superior to the first part.
Perhaps this is inherent to being the second act of a three act story, but The Desolation of Smaug doesn’t have the copious amounts of bullshit filler or the lumbering exposition that bogged down An Unexpected Journey. It is a bit slow going in the beginning, but once it gets rolling, whoa baby, hang on to your preciouses, as this bitch is, for the most part, full steam ahead with some fan-freaking-tastic action set-pieces, including an escape from a giant spider web, and a roaring river chase involving arrow slinging elves and rolling wine barrels that are balls out breathtaking in 3D. (Definitely shell out the extra dollars for the 3D ticket on this one, folks)
In fact, I would say that visually, in terms of both the cinematography and the effects, this film is a gigantic step up from the last one. To put it plainly, this movie is beautifully cinematic, whereas the first one looked like a TV movie. The most obvious improvement would be not having to deal with that distracting frame rate weirdness (check and make sure your theater isn’t playing it at 48 FPS), so the characters are no longer moving like over-cranked Keystone Kops. Also, Middle-earth is now appropriately dark and grimy, as opposed to the bright and clean amusement park look it had in the first Hobbit.
The most impressive of the film’s visual assets, however, is the rendering of Smaug. Here, he has texture, he has weight, and as I watched him, I wasn’t looking at some CGI effect, I was looking at a living, breathing, humungous ass dragon shooting fire out of its mouth. Combine that amazing special effect with the booming voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, and we easily have the most formidable villain this franchise has seen thus far. The final portion of the movie is entirely made up of Bilbo and the dwarves versus Smaug, and for most of that time, it’s utterly exhilarating.
I say “for most of that time” because as an action scene, it did go on for too long, and in the same way that a piece of gum loses its flavor, the excitement drained out of the scene until it just became tedious. And now that I’m griping, I suppose I should bitch about how the awesome Ian McKellen is barely in the film, and to a surprising extent, Bilbo (played perfectly by Freeman, once again) is pushed into the background. There are many scenes where he’s just kind of there, with little to contribute. It was nice, however, to see Orlando Bloom back, in a considerably meaty role, as the elf warrior, Legolas. Most of his screen time is spent slaying orcs and looking intense, and he’s great at doing both.
But, back to my bitching, while I said there is appreciably less filler than in the first Hobbit, there is a romantic subplot between some emo dwarf and a hot elf chick that I really, truly could have done without. It didn’t ring true and it didn’t belong, at all. Also, even though everything seems to have been ratcheted up a few notches this time around, the film sadly doesn’t quite capture that incredibly immersive feeling that made the Rings trilogy so, so special. Oh, and while I’m still moaning, I should note that the cliff hanger ending is very abrupt. I’m talking the ending of The Dark Knight kind of abrupt. People complained about the sudden endings of the previous films… well, this one is the worst offender of the lot, in that regard.
Those rather minor, but pesky, quibbles out of the way, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is one awesomely epic fantasy adventure and one of the most roundly satisfying motion pictures I’ve seen this year. For those of you who were fans of The Lord of the Rings films, but were perhaps a wee bit disappointed in the first Hobbit flick, as I kind of was, I say definitely give this one a shot, as I can assure you it delivers much more of the thrills and spectacle that we’ve come to expect from this series. With this grandiose and genuinely exciting second installment, Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy has finally kicked into gear, and has me counting the days until this time next year.