The Hobbit series continues to pale in comparison to its Lord of the Rings predecessors while still being far from a complete waste of time.
The Desolation of Smaug is a step-up from the previous film in terms of keeping things moving and justifying its run time. The appearance of Smaug himself certainly doesn’t hurt, with Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice pouring through the theater speakers like melted black licorice.
Just a note before I get into the meat of this review; I’ve heard some folks complaining about the way Smaug isn’t real enough. As part of this particular story, that doesn’t really bother me personally. Though since Peter Jackson is trying so hard to turn this story into the kind of epic that the previous films encompassed rather than the quaint adventure tale that actually makes up the book, I can understand why some people may be unhealthily focused on how an imaginary creature doesn’t look real enough. (Despite the fact that there are no such things as dragons. Not the fire-breathing and/or talking kind, at the very least.) For me, Smaug works because I feel the personality of the creature emanating from him. This is the most difficult thing for computer effects people to capture. The kind of lightning in a bottle that Ray Harryhausen brought to almost all his creations, despite the fact that no one would ever accuse him of realism. In this case, I felt it.
When it comes to the main storyline, the parts of the book that take the longest (staying with Beorn, the shape-shifter, or the imprisonment by the elf king) are done and over in a flash, while things that are not even in the books are given plenty of screentime.
Take Tauriel, for example. A character created for the films and portrayed by Evangeline Lilly, she actually works better than some of the things taken directly from the slight tome that the film is based on, maybe because she better fits the kind of film Jackson is making.
But the kind of film Jackson is making is a fun one. The action scenes (which conversely are much longer than they are in the books) manage to be the kind of roller coaster ride he’s famous for. In the instance of the famous barrel ride down the river, almost literally so.
The other good thing about this chapter is that the dwarves are managing to differentiate themselves. Personalities assigned to them are beginning to shine through. I can’t really fault the first film for having a tough time with their characterization, because there’s very little of it in the book. Sure, there are a few bits here and there for a select few of them, but in most cases, the fact that there are so many seems to exist only for the comic relief of listing their names in Tolkien’s book.
It is perhaps not ironic but at least an overlooked effect of this improvement that leads to the Hobbit of the title seeming less like a lead character of his own film and more like part of an ensemble. Especially between the dwarves and the side-adventures of Gandalf that are pushing the prequel aspects of the story much farther than one would expect. He comes in direct contact with forces and visions that make you wonder why he wasn’t better prepared at the beginning of Fellowship of the Rings.
So all in all, it’s a slicker, more action-oriented ride than the first film with less overt direct references to the original trilogy. But it also has the worst, most anti-climactic ending of any of the Tolkien films since Fellowship. In the end, if you didn’t like An Unexpected Journey, Smaug most likely will not change your mind about the Hobbit trilogy. Even with the improvements, it’s still overlong and it still is trying to make the story into something that it’s not. There and Back Again promises to be more of the same. But at least now we know what to expect of these films. A good time at the movies. Just not the earth-shaking time we had expected two years ago.
(Three and a half damns given out of five)