The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Still on the run from the orcs, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and the rest of the dwarves seek refuge in the house of a “skin-changer” (Mikael Persbrandt), currently in the form of a bear, who is not particularly keen on dwarves. Though their collective drive remains aflame, the quest to reach the Lonely Mountain and obtain the legendary Arkenstone, guarded by a fearsome dragon named Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), is clearly taking its toll. Their journey is not made any easier when Gandalf claims he must leave the party while the others will have to their way through the woods infested with massive spiders.
Despite exciting action sequences dispersed throughout “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” partly based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and directed by Peter Jackson, there is not enough meaty material to warrant such an overlong running time. Though mildly interesting characters are introduced, one gets the feeling that they appear not to enhance the story or to iron out its themes but because it needs a bit of padding to allow an already rich world to appear that much more magnificent. The key word is “appear.” Take away some of the supporting characters and the final product is more or less the same.
A few figureheads are downright irritating. In the latter half, Bilbo and company reach Esgaroth where a small community of humans reside. The people are unhappy because they live in squalor. There is talk about a possible riot or—worse—an election. The Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) and his minion (Ryan Gage) will not have such democracy. Spending time with them is like pulling teeth. I suppose we are supposed to dislike them, but their relevance in the big picture is questionable at best considering key figures like the dragon and a necromancer in Dol Guldur are front and center. There is an undercurrent of humor when the master and his lackey are on screen but most of the time they seem to come from a different film altogether. Perhaps the pair might have been more effective if they exuded more menace or were more domineering.
Furthermore, there is an undercooked romance between a she-elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and one of the dwarves, Kili (Aidan Turner). They share plenty of meaningful silences and looks of longing but not once was I moved by their struggle of possibly pursuing a forbidden love. As a result, like the leader of Laketown and his flunky, their subplot fails to move beyond its potential to become a part of an epic story.
Make no mistake: I enjoyed the film for the most part. When pulse-pounding chases, sword-slashing, arrow-swishing, and fire-breathing are involved, my eyes are barely able to keep up. (Some of the clunky CGI are forgivable.) Though the barrel sequence will impress many, which is appropriate and expected given its sheer energy, I admired the sequence involving the giant spiders most. Arrows puncturing limbs and decapitations may be absent but the horror is nonetheless captured by showing the arachnids roll up their prey—our protagonists—in thick layers web. Also, I thought it was neat how we get a chance to hear what the spiders are saying to one another.
The dragon is large and impressive. I liked it best when the camera zooms in on its body so we can appreciate its teeth, eyes, or scales. Though it is able to communicate telepathically, it rarely comes off silly or cartoonish in any way. I just wished it had less laughable lines such as “I am death!” As a result, I did not find Smaug, who is supposed to be the centerpiece of this installment, as mysterious and threatening as the necromancer. Anyone who can bring about crippling fear in Gandalf’s eyes is worthy of our attention.