This review appeared in shorter form on the Scene-Stealers Lawrence.com blog.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second in a three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Hobbit from co-writer/director Peter Jackson and it is exactly what you would expect.
Of course, the film is full of familiar characters and cutting-edge computer-animated action scenes, yet at times this two-and-a-half-hour middle chapter lacks urgency and its easy to feel the running time.
That’s not to say it is a bad film — it’s just that the time spent before and between its two main set pieces (a boisterous escape in barrels and the climactic showdown with the dragon) is poorly paced. In the previous The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson did an excellent job juggling characters and storylines that painted a detailed picture of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In the first two movies of The Hobbit, however, there isn’t as much richness of character or story to draw from, so Jackson fills the holes with action.
For a film called The Hobbit, there isn’t much of said hobbit until the last third. Martin Freeman has grown into the role of Bilbo Baggins even more comfortably this time around, but without a hobbit sidekick like Samwise to bounce his fears off of, he doesn’t say much and he fades into the background. The dwarfs who accompany Bilbo have slivers of their own personalities, but mostly they act as a unified group — and not too keenly, I might add.
A subplot involving Gandalf (Ian McKellan) is entirely devoid of drama, a shoehorned-in romance between the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) is strange but provides much-needed motivation to bring fan-favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom) into the picture, and the introduction of a Lake-town barge man (Luke Evans) works well — even though the constantly shifting opinions of his townspeople make little sense.
What everyone has truly been waiting for in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is right there in the title, and here Jackson doesn’t disappoint. Like Gollum before him, Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is an impressively rendered CGI creation, simmering with menace and infused with a bit of empathy. Bilbo’s encounter with the dragon is full of the kind of movie magic I wish were present in the entire film.
As with last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the biggest weakness of this new chapter is that the journey doesn’t carry any weight anymore. It is entirely expected. In form, it’s very similar to The Lord of the Rings with lots of walking and talking montages and an identical central conflict — the corrupting temptation of the all-powerful ring and a call to courage for a hobbit. Far from the journey, then, it’s the individual moments that elicit the greatest pleasure.
Sidenote: I did not see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in the high-frame-rate (HFR) format, so I can’t speak to that this time out. However, I talked about it at length in my review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.