Tuesday, December 17, 2013

‘The Desolation of Smaug’ Blows Smoke

Bloated, overwrought and needlessly busy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug provides 161 minutes of additional proof that Peter Jackson is in dire need of more discerning editor. Though far more entertaining than An Unexpected Journey — the first installment of the film trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s landmark children’s tome — Smaug often buckles under its own ambitions, deluded into thinking that bigger is always better. Much like Bilbo Baggins himself in his later years, this film feels like “butter scraped over too much bread,” and it ultimately isn’t all that appetizing.

The Desolation of Smaug picks up shortly after the conclusion of the previous film, with Bilbo — played spectacularly by Martin Freeman — accompanying a group of Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to the lost Dwarf city of Erebor, where the titular dragon slumbers. But before they contend with that fire-breathing menace, the group encounters spiders, Elf warriors and legions of snarling Orcs. As the Dwarves fight to reclaim their home under the Lonely Mountain, Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellan) is drawn to the East, where an ancient and malevolent force threatens all of Middle-earth.

Since The Hobbit is a relatively brief novel compared to the sprawling Lord of the Rings epic, some padding was necessary for Jackson to craft what amounts to nine-hours of screen time. As such, Smaug introduces characters and situations that were not part of Tolkien’s original story. Orlando Bloom reprises his role as Legolas, a character who did not interact with Bilbo & Co. in the original story, while Lost star Evangeline Lily plays Tauriel, a a Mirkwood Elf created solely for the movie adaptation. Purists might balk at Tauriel’s inclusion in this version of the story, but she brings to the film a welcome female presence. Her romance with Kili the Dwarf (Aiden Turner) is a bit forced, but it’s also a welcome emotional hook in a film that has a tendency to devolve into a non-interactive video game cutscene.

Indeed, there’s far more action in this outing than its predecessor but, much like the first film’s ludicrous chase through Goblin-town, most of the battle sequences come dangerously close to being goofy. In fact, it never even appears as though any of the heroic characters are in danger during even the most harrowing scenes. When your protagonists are effortlessly fending off legions of CGI monsters while simultaneously defying the laws of physics, even the most dazzling of set pieces can become a chore to sit through … even in 3D.

Despite its flaws, The Desolation of Smaug isn’t a total disappointment. Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a technical marvel, and there are several moments in the film that remind us why we first fell in love with Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth twelve years ago. However, as both an adaptation of a beloved classic and as a prequel trilogy to The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit seems to be falling short thus far. Let’s hope for redemption when There and Back Again hits theaters next year.

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