The Hobbit written by J. R. R. Tolkien first edition runs 310 pages in length – shorter than The Lord of the Rings novels that succeed it yet when adapted for the big screen, 1 film was enough to tell a complete story for each novel. That’s not the case when it comes to The Hobbit film adaptation. Broken up into a trilogy, Tolkien’s story is elongated – first going to be a two-film story than changed to three. It’s a narrative choice that many will scratch their heads to given what was accomplished years prior, but still, the good that comes of it, which there is a ton of it returning to Middle Earth lies in more time spent witnessing the potential this lavish universe holds within its space.
Anyone who’s a fan of the work of director Peter Jackson and his returning writing partners Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Guillermo del Toro will not mind a new trilogy – its welcomed after the success of The Lord of the Rings. There is just a high bar set in telling a new story. Following the satisfying conclusion of An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug picks up with the dwarf company of 12 led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), their hobbit burglar Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and wizard companion and ally Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) barely escaping Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) and his horde of orcs as they race to Erebor before Durin’s Day passes by.
Waiting for the dwarves at the Lonely Mountain is the gold obsessed, self-proclaimed death dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). It’s why Bilbo is accompanying them on this journey, to steal back the coveted Arkenstone from Smaug’s possession but leave it to Tolkien to weave a winding path from where the dwarves started to their final destination. The company only has to make it through Mirkwood forest which imposes the bulk of Desolation’s adversity for the company. Staying on the path laid out proves easier said than done creating more problems and detours than it actually solves.
After An Unexpected Journey, continuing the story in this follow up is easy to get behind. While further expanding the universe, Jackson and his writing partners are able to sprinkle in fan favorites into the mix making them feel like they also belong on this journey to save Middle Earth. For the short amount of time Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is actively picking off orcs while the dwarves and Bilbo are escaping in barrels down river, Bloom commands the screen, looking like he never took time off between trilogies to only Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) who slightly upstages Bloom. In Tandem the two elves pull off stunning feats of acrobatics while placing arrows where they need to be – directly in an orc to put them down.
Whereas Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage look comfortable in their return to their respective roles. Actually, I wouldn’t call it a return since the trilogy was shot back-to-back – it’s more of a continuation but regardless, the ensemble cast shines among other stand out elements that the saga is known for.
But those aren’t the only three in the company that are given importance to the narrative as a whole. No one member of the dwarves Is forgotten, and each bring their own personality to their respective roles while tweaking some traits here and there. However, keeping track of whose who proves quite the challenge. There’s Dwalin (Graham McTavish), Balin (Ken Stott), Kíli (Aidan Turner), Fíli (Dean O’Gorman), Dori (Mark Hadlow), Nori (Jed Brophy), Ori (Adam Brown), Óin (John Callen), Glóin (Peter Hambleton), Bifur (William Kircher), Bofur (James Nesbitt) and last but not least, Bombur (Stephen Hunter).
Yet again, the scope of Middle Earth can perfectly be described as epic making the scale appear massive to the smaller stature of the dwarves and the halfling hobbit. Visually striking, no two locations have the same look or give off the same energy. The journey discussed in a scene that opens the film between Galdalf and Thorin in a familiar location, the Prancing Pony, sets the events in motion to reclaim Erebor from Smaug and the title of the King under the mountain.
Everything in between that meeting and where we connect with the group after An Unexpected Journey has the feeling of a middle chapter. We know the story won’t end here yet these middle chapters are crucial to telling a complete narrative. All to set up the big finale, the long runtime can get tedious to accomplish about halfway through. Sure, the return of the elves provide a distraction with the acrobatic action to the hint of a Romeo and Juliet like romance between two hated groups to become engrossed in, but the real drag of this sequel lies within the realm of men. Any momentum Jackson built up is halted during these moments in Lake-Town involving the Master (Stephen Fry).
Although any scene involving Bard (Luke Evans) is a welcoming sight to behold as he weasels his way around Lake-Town. Beyond Bard and his family, Lake-Town is the least fantastical element in Middle Earth.
Boasting a better overall pacing to the adventure than its predecessor, The Desolation of Smaug is continued proof that the best hands for the scale of this universe and story is Jackson’s despite the intimidation factor that these high fantasy epics tend to hold. One viewing is simply not enough to fully grasp the beauty of Middle Earth and all the good and evil that reside in this world. At times the CGI is too overbearing and noticeable with the greenscreen but, Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography easily tricks the eye into believing these kingdoms exist in the real world.
The theme of heroism is still present throughout this middling near 3-hour detour. Each character must face a challenge that they aren’t used to, which propels their own individual arc. As individualistic these films can appear, the sense of family never fully goes away. If Gandalf is away, or the group of 13 is split up the personal growth the dwarves gained toward accepting Bilbo on their journey is emphasized even more now that Bilbo continues to prove his courage. Facing prejudice and hatred to overcome a bigger threat can be traced back to Tolkien’s own experiences in which these novels were based on.
Desolation of Smaug improves upon its predecessor while still posing as a lengthy experience to get to the inevitable cliffhanger. With one film remaining in the second trilogy of Middle Earth, Jackson places his narrative to end on a high note. The only question is, can he pull off two trilogies that finish with satisfactory conclusions. The fact that one book is being made into a trilogy is enough to be worrisome of a missed landing. From the outstanding ensemble performances, to the dense themes of heroism to the scale to the visuals, Desolation is a worthy even a better film and sequel to An Unexpected Journey.
Written By: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro
Directed By: Peter Jackson
Music By: Howard Shore
Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom
Where to Watch: HBO Max
Release Date: December 13, 2013
Running Time: 2 Hours 41 Minutes (Theatrical), 3 Hours 6 Minutes (Extended)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 74%
Based On: The Hobbit By J. R. R. Tolkien