THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG-- 5 STARS
Just last month on this website when talking about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the values and successes of great movie trilogies came up in conversation. In that review, I referenced the long, measuring dissemination I formulated about movie trilogies when I reviewed The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. To summarize my findings from both of those reviews, I believe the best trilogies are revered and remembered for either an amazing cliffhanging middle chapter that builds from a strong origin or a dynamite final chapter that saves the best for last and releases all of the energetic buildup the filmmakers were saving the whole time. For greats like The Godfather, Star Wars, and The Dark Knight series, the middle film was their best, while Toy Story, the Jason Bourne films, and The Lord of the Rings sagas waited until the final film to dazzle the most. In giving The Hunger Games: Catching Fire a middle-of-the-road three-star review, I aligned myself as patiently waiting for the conclusion of its intended trilogy before passing final judgment while still holding onto the hunch that they were saving their best for the end.
With the arrival of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the thrilling middle chapter of Peter Jackson's newest trilogy, the blueprint for this trilogy's success seems to be aligned with Jackson's first trip to Middle Earth over a decade ago. Like The Lord of the Rings series, I think the best is getting saved for last. A year ago, when I reviewed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I talked extensively about having the virtue of patience to see a whole story through. I staunchly defended the right Peter Jackson and company had to meticulously and methodically build their story and their world on their own time and to their desired detail. After already banking one great movie trilogy, I felt Jackson had earned that luxury.
A year later, with this second and middle chapter hitting theaters, my opinion hasn't changed. I gave The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a five-star review and a place on my year-end "10 Best" list of 2012 and I echo those accolades for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Like a great middle chapter should, this film escalates the tension, danger, and risk towards an as-yet-unseen climax that is sure to blow our socks off. Are the producers still milking us for three movies that could have fit into one? Probably, but, once again, I, for one, have the patience to respect what these filmmakers are up to and value what others might call tedious.
To bring you up to speed from the first chapter, the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) has enlisted the sensible halfling hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to play a small, but crucial burglar role in the quest of a company of displaced dwarves. Led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), heir to the throne, the thirteen of them seek to reclaim his birthright and their lost homeland, the "Lonely Mountain" of Erebor, which was invaded by a giant, gold-lusting dragon named Smaug a generation ago. Their quest has put them in the crosshairs of an Orc legion being controlled by a mysterious Necromancer figure that can raise the dead, but not before fate led Bilbo to an encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis) where he acquired a certain precious piece of jewelry that will change his life.
In this film, the journey to Erebor splits the party. Gandalf leaves the group to confront the dark Necromancer threat to the south in the abandoned ruins of Dol Guldur. The rest of them dodge the Orc hunters by going through the decaying Mirkwood forest region controlled by the wood elves. After tangling with deadly spiders, the company is taken captive by Legolas (the familiar face of Orlando Bloom) and his archer captain Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly of TV's Lost) and brought before the Elvenking Thranduil (Lincoln's Lee Pace). Thorin rebuffs their assistance and Bilbo, using his ring-powered stealth, enables their daring river escape out of Mirkwood.
After clearing the forest, the dwarves acquire the benevolent help of Bard the Bowman (Fast and Furious 6's Luke Evans), an influential would-be leader of Esgaroth the Lake-Town at the foot of the "Lonely Mountain." With the Orcs and now the elves on their tail, the dwarves and Bilbo reload and regroup in Lake-Town before making their final ascension to the slopes and secret passage inside Erebor. The prevailing mystery is just how formidable is that fire-breathing threat that awaits them there.
All of the marketing of The Hobbit; The Desolation of Smaug and also the entire first film were true to J.R.R. Tolkien's master plan to wisely hide the big ticket item from full view outside of a passing glimpse or two. You knew Smaug was coming. You knew "Mr. 2013" Benedict Cumberbatch was going to play and voice him. You knew it was going to be good and not a drop of that anticipation was wasted once the big boy emerges from the gold and shows up onscreen in all of his winged, British-accented glory. Your jaw drops right there with Bilbo's. The build-up and your $8 were worth it and the clash with Smaug appears to be just the beginning of the potential enormity of what lies ahead.
The continued character development is another perk of the patience of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. A few of our supporting dwarves are starting to get a little more weight to lift to join the leads of Bilbo, Thorin, and Gandalf. The new additions of Legolas, Tauriel, and Bard fit right in and expand the rooting interest for our heroes. Martin Freeman's performance as Bilbo Baggins is still the brightest gem of the bunch. He brings a welcome intelligence, wit, and humanity to this band of brawlers.
Just as with the first film, every technical aspect of this film is off the charts. This is big cinematic spectacle and adventure at its finest. The visual rub from collaborator Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim), the originally slated director before Peter Jackson re-assumed the lead, is ever-present in creature and production design. The special effects, costume design, makeup, and stunt work are all in top form, the action scenes are stupendously exciting, and composer Howard Shore's musical themes keep getting better. None of this should surprise us from a Peter Jackson production.
As I've done since The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I will move forward defending this film trilogy's merits and preach the patience to see this story through to the end. I've seen nothing but promise and entertainment and hope you do the same. I still think this trilogy will match seamlessly with The Lord of the Rings and create a grand double-trilogy epic tale. In my review of the first film, I called upon audiences to visualize how a movie would feel if they left a full story after the first third. I asked you to imagine if you stopped watching Psycho when Marion Crane left Phoenix, Superman when Krypton explodes, or Star Wars before Luke Skywalker leaves Tatooine. Well, move forward. You are now two-thirds of the way through. You've come to the Bates Hotel, seen a man a fly in a red cape, and learned Darth Vader's true identity. Are you really going to stop now? I wouldn't if I were you.
LESSON #1: DON'T MESS WITH DRAGONS-- You'll see. Great googa-mooga! Smaug makes every other movie dragon look like the gecko from the Geico insurance commercials. What chance do a dozen or so 4-foot slow-moving bearded warriors have? Not much, that's for sure. Good luck. I would have let him have the mountain.
LESSON #2: STEALTH IS A KEY SKILL IN EVADING DIRECT CONFLICT-- Far more than in the first film, Gandalf's gamble of employing an unassuming hobbit that no one will notice in the role of a burglar is paying off in spades. Thanks to an evil dash of invisibility from a notable ring, Bilbo makes great use of his stealth ability to get himself and his comrades out of jams on multiple occasions. He is not longer a token burden on the company.
LESSON #3: COMMITTING TO A PROMISE-- Through most of the first film, Bilbo remained very homesick of the Shire until he realized how good he has it compared to the dwarves who have been scattered and robbed of their homeland entirely. He made a promise that despite any obstacle, he was going to see this quest through to the end. Even when toe-to-toe with an enormous dragon, his commitment doesn't change. He has bonded that strongly with Thorin and his cause.
LESSON #4: THE GROWING CHANGE THAT COMES FROM EXPERIENCING BATTLE AND SURVIVAL-- Gandalf makes note very early in the film that he sees a change in Bilbo, following up his prophesy from the first film that he will never be the same after this experience. Between seeing what he has seen, surviving what he has encountered, learning to fight for himself and others, and having the metaphorical weight of a certain circular gold accessory slowing seeping into his mind, there is no doubt that Gandalf's observation is chillingly accurate. Courage is part of that change. This change isn't quite finished either, as we know.