Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Evaluating The Hobbit films is turning out to be a tricky business. I loved (LOVED) what Peter Jackson did with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He managed to take a beloved classic and translate it from page to screen almost flawlessly. The films (like the books before them) are truly a hallmark of the fantasy genre, and something that will remain celebrated for years to come. 

I find myself wanting to love The Hobbit films as much as I loved the Lord of the Rings series, but I just don’t. They are entertaining enough, but they are plagued by more problems and just don’t live up to the shadow of their predecessor.

And The Desolation of Smaug is more of the same. We continue to follow the dwarves and Bilbo on their journey to the Lonely Mountain, and the story is intercut with more of Gandalf playing detective and looking into the mystery of the evil necromancer, as well as the growing tale of the Wood Elves that we meet in Murkwood – particularly Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), as they seem to be playing more than a bit role in the proceedings.

And it’s fun. I love Middle Earth and I am always excited to be able to return and spend some time there. I’m happy that these movies exist and I am alway excited to revisit this rich world th that Tolkien created and that Peter Jackson has realized…but I just can’t love this new series. The Hobbit films are significantly more flawed than their predecessors, they don’t move as smoothly, the characters aren’t as developed, the look isn’t as polished and the different pieces don’t come together as perfectly as in the original trilogy.

A big part of the problem that I have with this film (as well as with An Unexpected Journey) is the tonal inconsistencies that constantly spring up. On the one hand, The Hobbit was always a much lighter story than The Lord of the Rings. More of a bedtime story than an opera, it was simpler in just about every possible way, and much more light-hearted. So it makes sense to include scenes of dwarves tossing plates and stupid trolls and barrel-riding schenanigans. It fits the tone of Tolkien’s original tale. But on the other hand, it is also a part of the Lord of the Rings story, and while the original films did have their comedic moments, they were, by and large, a much more serious, somber affair. So we have moments of gravity surrounding Thorin’s history and his quest and we have the (rather forcefully) inserted tie-backs to LOTR with the inclusion of Sauron’s presence in this story. All of that creates a much darker, more serious atmosphere. And these two tones spend two and a half hours butting heads. The light-hearted approach detracts from the serious note set forth by LOTR, and the serious elements make the lighter tone seem overly-silly. It’s a constant battle to find a happy medium between the two.

Additionally, it just feels bloated. I have no problem at all with long movies – especially when there is a lot of worthwhile ground to cover. But the problem here is that I don’t really care about anything other than the dwarf party. I’m not terribly interested in the elves and I don’t particularly care about what Gandalf is doing. So any time spent away from Bilbo, Thorin and the company feels slow and plodding. Those story lines just aren’t grabbing me, for whatever reason.

This sounds like a total hatefest, but the thing is, I really did enjoy the film. Despite its issues and flaws, it’s still a fun adventure back to Middle Earth. It’s just disappointing when you know that the creators are capable of truly great things, but aren’t living up to the bar that they set for themselves a decade ago. But there are some moments here that really do shine.

Martin Freeman continues to be absolutely perfect as Bilbo, showcasing his hesitance and his ever-growing courage and taste for adventure simultaneously. Smaug looked fantastic, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice lends an air of refinement and deadliness to the dragon, making him truly entrancing and terrifying at the same time. The action sequences were all a lot of fun and it was great to continue on this adventure. I’m hoping that a lot of the problems that I have with this trilogy will work themselves out when There and Back Again arrives in theaters next year. Most of the scenes that I am really looking forward to lie in that film, so everything else just sort of feels like pit stops along the path to getting there.

While it did have some entertaining moments and sequences (I particularly loved the scene in the dragon’s lair where Bilbo meets Smaug), this film definitely felt like a bridge piece, linking the events of the first and third films together. The Desolation of Smaug contained some pivotal moments in the story, to be sure (the spiders, escaping the wood elves in barrels, finally arriving at the Lonely Mountain to unlock the secret door), but so much of it was set up for events to come. Flawed though the series is, I am still looking forward to seeing Laketown take on Smaug in the next chapter, as well as the Battle of Five Armies. I hope that the next film is able to give me everything that I have been hoping to see.