Note: this review will also be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s site on December 13th.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug thrives on its natural ability to excite with wildly fantastical moments and a growing assortment of full-fledged characters. Unlike its predecessor, which looked glorious in 48 frames-per-second 3D but lacked a lot of biting power and momentum in terms of storytelling, the latest feature pushes rampantly forward, starting with a terrific action sequence that involves Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and crew running from orcs through the forest where the previous film ended. They encounter skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a man who can assume the appearance of a giant black bear, who hosts them and provides them with supplies as they venture into the Milkwood forest. The forest is filled with (at this point) traditional Middle-Earth threats: spiders, hallucinations, and elves. Upon being saved by Bilbo using the infamous ring, the elves led by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) capture them.
Their capture ultimately leads to their escape, fights with orcs, and a journey to Lake-town, where they meet Bard (Luke Evans), a descendant of the original ancestors that fought off Smaug. Urban legend has it that they wounded him and destroyed a scale but there remains no proof. The town simply provides a break for the journeyers to head to the Lonely Mountain, wherein lies Smaug as he protects the treasure that the dwarves and most of Middle-Earth desire. More specifically, Thorin hopes to claim the Arkenstone, which is considered a treasure by the dwarves and something that will truly mark their success on this journey. Most of the film involves hefty amounts of exposition, which comes as a surprise given the extensive amount of time Peter Jackson has allotted himself for the three films. Spanning eight hours, they are telling not only the relatively simple story of The Hobbit, but taking on lore from the Lord of the Rings universe through writings like The Silmarillion.
What’s so striking about the narrative in these films is the definitive lack of conclusion in almost every regard. That remains The Hobbit‘s weakest suit. There does not seem to be any type of conclusory actions in this film; standing as the middle one in a trilogy, that would make sense, but what made The Lord of the Rings films so complete was the allotment of one book per film. Here, every plot feels as if it has worn its welcome. Yet the introduction of new characters and threads, particularly Tauriel, lends itself well to this atmosphere. Lilly is terrific in her part, bringing excitement to a role that could have been frivolous given its lack of involvement in the original story. The high point of the film comes from Smaug’s introduction and Benedict Cumberbatch’s pitch-perfect snarl and embodiment of evil. He stands as the greatest dragon in film history due to the true fear he strikes in the audience; he is gargantuan and virtually unstoppable.
The film’s cliffhanger will drive people mad. It feels like a narrative cheat, considering the promise that it leaves hanging for the next film, set to be released a year from now. But when a film can garner that much excitement about its next feature, where it has the audience beg for what is coming next rather than delivering it without demand, there should be credit where it’s due. Jackson is impressively building upon the universe he started over a decade ago and keeps creating some of the most exciting action I can anticipate in a blockbuster. A scene where the dwarves and Bilbo navigate down a fast-moving stream in barrels as orcs attempt to kill them stands as the single most-exciting set piece of the year, acting as a tense, fun, and all-around impressive piece of filmmaking. The character development remains strong and continues to provide expansion, with the focus shifting from Bilbo this time around; the movie opens with Thorin, signaling that it is his story. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug may simply feel like a film that needs the others in the series to feel complete, but it’s fantastically stunning and thoroughly engaging.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)