Directed by: Peter Jackson.
Written by: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Starring: Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Martin Freeman (Bilbo), Richard Armitage (Thorin), Ken Stott (Balin), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), William Kircher (Bifur), James Nesbitt (Bofur), Stephen Hunter (Bombur), Dean O'Gorman (Fili), Aidan Turner (Kili), John Callen (Oin), Peter Hambleton (Gloin), Jed Brophy (Nori), Mark Hadlow (Dori), Adam Brown (Ori), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Evangeline Lilly (Tauriel), Lee Pace (Thranduil), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Benedict Cumberbatch (Smaug / Necromancer), Mikael Persbrandt (Beorn), Sylvester McCoy (Radagast), Luke Evans (Bard / Girion), Stephen Fry (Master of Laketown), Ryan Gage (Alfrid).
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is better than last year’s An Unexpected Journey if for no other reason than because we don’t have to spend nearly as much time in an vain attempt to introduce us to all the characters in the film. I’ve spent nearly six hours watching these two films now, and I still don’t think I could pass a test where I had to match the names to the faces of all the dwarves who Bilbo and Gandalf are accompanying on their journey to take back their homeland (I could get Thorin – and everyone else would be pure dumb luck). In An Unexpected Journey, we spent an hour trying to get to know them all – but this time, after a brief introduction, the film pretty much just kicks in with the plot and action sequences that will drive it for nearly three hours. Yes, like the last film, every scene seems to me to be a little too long – and Jackson seems a little too willing to let everything play out at length, and underline every emotion multiple times (I could have done with far few shots of Orlando Bloom staring at Evangeline Lilly with love in his eyes). It’s clear the Hobbit films will never live up to Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films – a nearly impossible task – but while their over length hurts the films, it does not kill it. The films are still impeccably made, with great visual effects, and exciting action sequences. Now if only there was a little bit less of everything.
The film follows our hero Bilbo, the wizard Gandalf and the (not so) merry band of dwarves led by Thorin in an effort to retake their Kingdom, which lies under a mountain and was stolen from them by Smaug – an evil, fire breathing dragon, who sleeps on top of the treasure he has stolen. This time – after some adventures involving orcs, wood elves, white water rafting in barrels, a stop at a poor town ruled by the delightful Stephen Frye – our band of misfits actually arrive at their destination – but of course things don’t turn out quite as they planned it – if it did, there would be no third movie after all.
The film contains some magnificent action sequences – a fight with some incredibly large, vile spiders, the aforementioned white water rafting battle, where the dwarves and Bilbo fly down the river pursued by orcs – and elves – and the climax where we finally get a good look at Smaug. Like everything else in the movie, all of these sequences probably go on a little longer than they really should (in particular the barrels) – but they are also expertly crafted by Jackson and company and do give the movies a much needed jolt of energy at times.
Those jolts are necessary, because there are a few too many scenes where a few too many characters have to be introduced – this time, we have to be reintroduced to Bloom’s Legolas (who has a surprising amount of screen time considering he doesn’t do all that much), and Lilly’s Tauriel, the elf he is in love with, but is too lowly for the son of the King – alongside Luke Evans’ Bard – a bargeman who, of course, will play a much bigger role in the third film (at least one hopes considering how much time we spend with him this time). These scenes often drag the film to a halt – and pull focus away from Martin Freeman’s Bilbo – who is shunted off to the background for far too long in a movie where he plays the title character.
The Hobbit films are what they are – which like the Star Wars prequels is nowhere near as good as the original trilogy. That doesn’t mean the films are not good – or not entertaining or well made, or well-acted (by a few people anyway) – because they are. Watching them with lowered expectations help. Yes, Jackson could have easily have made one long (or even two semi-long) films and the storytelling would have been greatly improved – but what he has made is pretty good. If we’re disappointed, it’s because The Lord of the Rings films were a hell of a lot better than pretty good.