The Desolation of Smaug review

On Sunday, 15 December 2013, Janice and I dug out from a weekend snowstorm and drove down to the Showcase Cinema de Lux at Legacy Place in Dedham, Mass. We met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H., Sara F. & Josh C., Bruce K., and Rich C.G. for The Hobbit [Part 2 of 3]: The Desolation of Smaug. We mostly liked the fantasy prequel/sequel.

The Desolation of Smaug
Tolkien and Jackson’s fantasy epic continues

Plot: If you haven’t read J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel or seen director Peter Jackson’s previous adaptations of The Lord of the Rings (LotR) and The Hobbit [Part 1 of 3]: An Unexpected Journey, then The Desolation of Smaug probably won’t make much sense. This movie assumes that you’re familiar with Tolkien and Jackson’s world of Middle Earth.

The film opens with a flashback to the town of Bree (as well as to The Fellowship of the Ring), where the Wizard Gandalf and exiled prince Thorin meet and decide on a quest to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain and lost stronghold of the Dwarves. We then see Bilbo Baggins, the titular Hobbit burglar, traveling with Thorin and company through Mirkwood. They encounter multiple obstacles, including giant spiders and Elves, on their way to confront the mighty dragon Smaug.

Meanwhile, Gandalf goes on a side mission for the White Council to Dol Goldur, a ruined tower in the south where evil is stirring anew. He and colleague Radagast learn that the Necromancer raising an Orc army is none other than…. Well, I’ll try to avoid “spoilers,” even if some of the linked reviews and many viewers already know how The Hobbit ties to LotR.

Cast: The acting is the strongest part of The Desolation of Smaug, with Martin Freeman returning as slightly less-reluctant adventurer Bilbo and the magisterial Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey. Richard Armitage gets the lion’s share of the Dwarven lines as Thorin. Aidan Turner returns as Kili in an unlikely love triangle.

Other new and returning cast members include Lost‘s Evangeline Lilly as the winsome Elf warrior Tauriel, Orlando Bloom as unaging archer Legolas, and Pushing Daisies‘ Lee Pace as haughty Elf king (and Legolas’ father) Thranduil. Mikael Persbrandt plays Beorn, a scary man who can shift into a bear.

During a stop at Lake Town, filled with descendants of refugees from the city of Dale, we meet scruffy humans, including the scheming mayor, played by Stephen Fry, and noble Bard, played by Luke Evans. Evans resembles Bloom, both in chiseled features and in his character’s ability with a bow. It was nice to see Bard’s children in a supporting role, hinting at a larger world with everyday people in it.

Direction: Jackson does a better job than in An Unexpected Journey, although The Desolation of Smaug still lurches a bit from set piece to set piece. The script has a good amount of humor, and we get glimpses at new parts of Middle Earth, from the depths of Mirkwood to Smaug’s huge treasure hoard in the stone halls of Erebor.

Warner Brothers no doubt wants to milk this franchise as the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy and the Harry Potter series have wound down. However, most fans and critics agree that stretching The Hobbit over three movies and adding new characters or material from LotR’s appendices wasn’t the best idea. Still, as with Disney’s recent acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm, it would be disingenuous to claim to not to be happy to return to a beloved setting.

Visual effects: The giant spiders are properly horrific, even if the Orcs still look more computer-generated than their LotR counterparts. An action-packed chase scene featuring the Dwarves (and Bilbo) in barrels leaving the Elven kingdom is more impressive than their escape from the Goblin town in the previous movie.

The great wyrm Smaug, well-voiced by Sherlock‘s and Star Trek: Into Darkness‘ Benedict Cumberbatch, is a true wonder to behold. Serpentine and greedy, prone to flattery, and winged death incarnate, Smaug is one of the best dragons we’ve ever seen on film. There was some controversy about the configuration of legs, but rest assured, Jackson and company did this monster justice.

Janice, Sara, Bruce, and Rich saw The Desolation of Smaug in conventional 2-D, while Thomas, Kai-Yin, Josh, and I saw the high-frame rate (HFR) 3-D version. Thomas and Josh didn’t care for the HFR, but it didn’t bother me. I’d compare it to seeing high-definition television (HD TV) for the first time, although I’d be the first to admit that most 3-D movies aren’t worth the extra ticket cost.

Soundtrack: No new themes stood out for me on first listen, but I was definitely aware of music that evoked the LotR trilogy. The score also supported the increasing levels of peril, from the Dwarves wandering in Mirkwood to their stirring up of Smaug under the Lonely Mountain.

Rating: Overall, I’d give The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug, which is rated PG-13 for violence, an 8 out of 10, three and a half out of five stars, or a B+. As a longtime fantasy fan and gamer, I look forward to next year’s third installment! The road goes ever on….

Of the trailers we saw, I’m most interested in the latest iteration of Godzilla, if less so in the Miller/Snyder ahistorical 300: Rise of an Empire. The remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reminded me more of A Night at the Museum and Forrest Gump than the James Thurber short story or Danny Kaye comedy.

Over dinner at P.F. Chang’s, we discussed other recent and upcoming genre entertainment, and 47 Ronin (the Keanu Reeves fantasy, not to be confused with real Japanese history or folklore) is the next movie we hope to see together in theaters.

Here are the movies I’ve seen this past year:

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5 thoughts on “The Desolation of Smaug review

  1. Thanks also for the review. It does sound better than the first part, which I found long and boring despite or perhaps because of the innumerable battle scenes. I will probably see no. 2 out of habit, but I am still considering seeing the Rankin Bass cartoon in its place. Despite its corniness, it still better captures the spirit of the book better than the bombastic Peter Jackson adaptation. I thought his LotR films were excellent, sadly I cannot say the same of part 1 of the Hobbit.

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    1. Steve, you’ll probably find The Desolation of Smaug to be similarly overstuffed with CGI battles and plot tangents to An Unexpected Journey. There are some good character moments, and the main monster encounters (spiders, Smaug) are faithful to the book. While I have fond memories of the Rankin-Bass adaptation, comparing either to the classic fantasy novel is a bit like apples and oranges.

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  2. Saw it over “break”–liked it–I did wish for a bit more on the dwarves, but they did get quite a few moments–as I did with Part 1, I’m planning on getting the extended edition. There were a few parts that felt trimmed….

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