For those who saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in theaters a year ago might have found it, familiar, in that it followed so many of the beats found in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, all the way down to a scene with Gollum crammed in. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy more than a fantasy quest and a Peter Jackson adaptation of a J.R.R. Tolkien novel, and it was created in magnificent craftsmanship, but as a stand-alone film, it left a lot to be desired. That says a lot about a film that was nearly three hours long. Oh there were technical bells and whistles and many film fans and pundits found themselves talking more about the merits of 3D or 48 frames per second more passionately than the actual story itself. We don’t think that will be the problem this time around. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is out this weekend and is a vast improvement than the first Hobbit film; here are the reasons why:
1. No drawn out introductions
The attempt to introduce viewers to dwarf culture didn’t go over too well with most movie audiences. I found the backlash a shame as I found it a throw back to when films would break into a song and dance. The lore of Tolkien allows for it. Jackson tried to make sure no leaf is unturned, especially in his extended editions. But there was purpose to it in An Unexpected Journey as it gave a deeper understanding of the dwarves since there is so little time spent trying to help us actually care for most of these little fellows, but I could also see why people want a much tighter film when they’re spending three hours on it.
Songs be damned, there’s a dragon to get to and a kingdom that needs to be reclaimed. This installment wastes little time getting Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the rest of his merry band of dwarves to the Mirkwood Forest, which serves as a great portion of the adventure to reclaim Lonely Mountain and the riches it houses from Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), the fire breathing dragon. There’s no extra contemplation by the characters. There’s no need to find inspiration or inch towards the end game. They’re all driven by the same goal and that helps keep the story moving along with only a handful of slow spots.
2. Legolas and Tauriel
It’s true, Jackson created Evangeline Lilly’s character Tauriel, who gave the screen a break from all of the grizzly dwarves and hobbit feet, as a departure from the novel. She reinforced the relentless parade of female archers in popular culture. For those keeping score, she’s infinitely better than Princess Merida and Young Justice’s Artemis but falls short of Katniss Everdeen and even Arya Stark. Still, for Lost fans, it’s been ages since we saw Lilly and there’s some fine action sets that she’s a part of, but her presence also introduces a love triangle element between Tauriel, Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, and one of the dwarves.
Speaking of Legolas, the arrogant and cocky warrior from the LOTR trilogy is in rare form here. Ever the brash one, he is the badass these films have been sorely needing. We had Aragorn in the first trilogy and try as he may, Armitage is no Viggo Mortensen. By design Thorin and Aragorn are not playing the same sports but this franchise needed a bit of ferociousness. Legolas provides that swash-buckling, slicing and spearing that was missing from the first Hobbit movie.
3. Less emphasis on Orcs
We get it, the Orcs are one bad bunch, but after seeing hordes of them in the entire LOTR trilogy, enough already. Look, they are cool, but they lose some of their punch when all you see is orc after orc after… well, you get the point. But there are other threats in this film that de-emphasize the Orc hierarchy and that’s a fresh breath of air. There are other moving parts, that build towards the confrontation between the dwarves and Smaug and that equates to a better, balanced film. It may still be two hours and 41 minutes but it doesn’t feel like it’s that long.
There is also a better effort to make Gandalf’s (Ian McKellen) solo asides feel like they’re a part of the story instead of extra padding for an already bloated story. Pulled from the appendices from Return of the King, Gandalf misadventures add to the sum of all the parts as well as adds to the legacy of the Lord of the Rings and the One Ring, which should make diehard fans of Tolkien more pleased at their integration in this film.
4. The introduction of Bard
Since the Hobbit films do little to advance the character of Bilbo or any of the Dwarves, we are given Bard (Luke Evans) and his back story. Bard is family man from Laketown, once the trading port for all of Middle Earth until darkness fell upon it. Bard represents an interesting counterpoint to Thorin and his rushed decisions.
5. Smaug in all of his full Glory
An Unexpected Journey was such a bad tease to talk up a bad ass dragon for two hours and 40 minutes, only to leave us with an open eyeball at the end. Not to worry here as at least one third of the film is devoted to the fire-breathing giant – and it’s worth the wait. This enormous adversary gives purpose to the number of dwarves and provides another antagonist that’s not an orc or Gollum. So few of the bad guys in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings have a full personality, so it’s a surprise that Smaug be able to show a full spectrum of emotions and desires instead of being another intimidating and imposing “big boss” villain. Like Gollum before, Weta knows how to breath life into digital characters and Smaug is not a letdown.
So those are the main things that largely make The Desolation of Smaug a more enjoyable experience than An Unexpected Journey. I could continue on about the beautifully orchestrated action sets, but those are a given benefit of Jackson’s monstrous films. The ones here hold up to many of those in the LOTR trilogy. However, there are still things that are annoying, like having too many Dwarves that don’t do anything except clutter up the screen. It also doesn’t help when viewers are trying desperately to connect to the Dwarves but are often upstaged by the heroics of Bilbo (he doesn’t have to be the hero of every moment). One wonders how the race of Dwarves rose to such heights.
There’s still an excruciating cliffhanger that will make you strangle those sitting beside you and no, there’s not more after the credits. For all of the craft and purity theater experience Jackson speaks of, he’s yet found a way to stick a clean landing. Instead, many of his films play to the home video capability of dropping a blu-ray to finish the story. These films come out 12 months apart, and end in manner that could be best described as a your college roommate barging in on a steamy one-night stand. Considering these few foibles, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug not only salvages the Hobbit Trilogy, it will fuel the desire to see the final installment – and that’s a big improvement over how we felt a year ago.