For generations of fans living in Fresno and all over the world, J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth has delighted and fascinated thousands of readers with its vast world, incredible creatures and characters, immense amount of detail, and epic tales of morality, good and evil, and other timeless themes that underlay this amazing fictional world that seems so real that it could almost pass for some sort of forgotten part of human history. Then, in 2001, a New Zealand director named Peter Jackson, then best known for splatter comedies like Bad Taste and the ultra-gory Braindead (known in America as Dead Alive), and later black comedies like Meet the Feebles, the drama Heavenly Creatures and the mockumentary Forgotten Silver, decided to do the unthinkable and adapt Tolkien's most famous work, the three-part epic The Lord of the Rings, long thought to bee too big and too challenging to be put to screen, and adapt it into three simultaneously-filmed feature films, all film exclusively in his native country of New Zealand. Despite natural skepticism from many fans, The Lord of the Rings trilogy became a massive hit both critically and financially, being among the highest-grossing film series of all time and winning 17 out of 30 total Academy Award nominations, with the final film in the series, The Return of the King, winning all of its 11 Academy Awards nominations, tying with Ben-Hur and Titanic for most Academy Awards received for a film. The trilogy also received wide praise for its innovative special and visual effects, including revolutionary technique used to realize such digital character as Gollum.
Ten years after the trilogy has ended, Jackson's films continue to be loved by legions of fan all over the world, as are Tolkien's works themselves, and for years fans lobbied to see Jackson adapt the original children's book to which The Lord of the Rings was envisions as a sequel to, The Hobbit. After a lengthy and complicated period of right disputes the studios sorting out financial difficulties, a period that sadly saw original director Guillermo del Toro have to leave the project to develop another idea of his that ultimately became Pacific Rim, Jackson ultimately decided to return to Middle-earth once again and bring us not one, but three feature film adaptation's of Tolkien's classic story of humble hobbit Bilbo Baggins and his journey east with thirteen dwarves to free a treasure from an evil dragon, and all the many adventures he would have along the way.
Released last year, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was the first part of this new trilogy and was released to much critical praise and impressive box office. However, some critics and audiences did criticize it for having a slower-paced structure, excessive padding done to expand a 270-300 page book into three films, and most of all for Jackson's decision to shoot the film in a high 48 frames per second format that resulted in such a sharp picture that is actually distracted many from enjoying the film. Yet despite these flaws, this examiner absolutely loved the film and felt as though he had stepped back in time to relive those experiences of watching the original trilogy all over again, albeit with new characters and a new story. This examiner enjoyed himself so much, that despite its flaws I still gave it a five star review. But does the trilogy's second installment hold up just as well?
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, opens with a short flashback to the first meeting of Thorin Oakenshield (played by Richard Armitage), grandson of the dwarven king under the mountain, and the wizard Gandalf the Grey (played by Sir Ian McKellen). The two discuss how long ago the dwarves lost their kingdom of Erebor to the terrible dragon Smaug and that the time has come to take it back. Thorin is especially interested in reclaiming the most sacred jewel within the mountain, the Arkenstone, to which Gandalf mentions that a stealthy burglar will be required for such a task.
Twelve months later, we pick up after the end of the first film with Thorin, Gandalf, his company of twelve dwarf companions, and their official burglar, hobbit Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman), are fleeing the pursuit of a pack of orcs led by Thorin's old enemy, Azog the Defiler. Desperate, they take refuge inn the home of a reclusive "skin-changer" named Beorn (played by Mikael Persbrandt), a man with the power to change into a gigantic bear, who provides them with a place to stay the night and ponies to ride the next morning to the edges of Mirkwood, an accursed forest home both to wood elves and to many nasty creatures. But Gandalf can no longer lead them on their journey as he must now investigate a dark power growing out of the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur, where rumors claim a Necromancer has taken refuge, a mysterious sorcerer that may have connections to a great evil that the good peoples of Middle-earth thought destroyed for an age. Now on their own, Bilbo must help the company to resist giving into madness, being consumed by giant spiders, and escaping capture from the Elven King Thranduil (played by Lee Pace) and his son Legolas (played by Orlando Bloom); all the while Bilbo finds himself being strangely affected and overprotective of the magic ring of invisibility he stole from Gollum's cave.
Through a mix of Bilbo's cleverness and the aid of some unexpected allies, including Legolas, the elven warrior Tauriel (played by Evangeline Lilly), and a mortal bowman named Bard (played by Luke Evans), the company avoid pursuit by the orc pack and make it to Lake Town, a colony of men sitting on top of a lake at the foot of the dwarves' destination, the Lonely Mountain. After a few days rest, they finally find the hidden door into the mountain and Bilbo is given his final task: to sneak into the golden halls of the dragon Smaug (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and steal the Arkenstone from under his nose. But can Bilbo succeed, or will his venture into the dragon's lair reawaken a terror the likes of which Middle-earth has not seen for decades?
A lot of the nostalgia factor that this examiner had for the original film trilogy while watching the first film had worn off and I was more aware of the excessive padding this time around, especially in the final act. As a result, I still thoroughly enjoyed the film, but came home in an unusual stupor after seeing it for the first time. To get myself hyped, I had taken the precaution of reading the chapters of the book that I predicted this film would be based on, so all of the changes that Jackson made did stick out to me. I realized that that preparation worked against me here similarly to what happened to me when The Two Towers first came out. So, I decided to watch the film again on it's own merit, and I am so happy that I did because I was able to enjoy far more on the second viewing.
The truth is that in order to adapt this single book into three films, excessive padding was inevitable, especially if they wanted to make this children's story into the epic prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy as it was inevitably destined to be. as an audience, you have to be willing to let things go and not be a purist; heck, this is the rare instance where the films try to give you even more than you got in the original. Once you accept that, you should be fine and ready to have a great time.
But, having said that, what kinds of things does the film change from the book? Well for one thing, the subplot from the first film about the Necromancer in Dol Guldur becomes of greater importance as Gandalf much leave the dwarves fairly early on to go investigate it. I'm not going to reveal the true identity of this Necromancer character, but you've probably already guessed it anyway, and this plot line is meant to be the primary bridge, besides the Ring, between the two trilogies. Incidentally, if you check the appendices of The Return of the King, Tolkien actually says that these events take place about 90 years before the events of The Hobbit, but I think that drafting it into the films was an exciting move, as it broadens the world a lot more and gives Gandalf a satisfying excuse for when he has to leave the company. Besides, the final face off between Gandalf and the Necromancer where his identity is revealed, despite lacking any trace of subtlety whatsoever, cannot help but bring a sense of dread for any fan of the book or of Jackson's films.
Many other new characters are drafted into the story that were not in the book, while some characters are given expanded roles. Legolas, well-remembered as a future member of the Fellowship of the Ring, is written into the script to provide even more of his typical, ridiculously amazing stunt work, but I accept it not only for nostalgia, but because the Elven King, Thranduil, is his father, so Legolas being included make sense to me. But there is also a brand new elf character Tauriel, captain of the Elven Kings's guard, who is an original creation by there screenwriters; this character is a lot of fun and she too gets her moments of amazing stunt work, but again, Tolkien purists will question the need for her inclusion. Going along with that, the film creates a unique flirtation between her and Kili, one of the dwarves, which could have easily been totally off-putting and distracting, but instead it helps to humanize one of the dwarves and serves as a good counterpoint to the deep-rooted hatred the elves and dwarves share in this story. And for the record, if you check out the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey, then Kili's unusual attraction to elf women is set up in a comical fashion. In other words, it is a sort-of mirror to the starcrossed love between Aragorn and Arwen, or between Beren and Luthien if we really delve into Tolkien's mythology. Beorn, a character from the book, appears here is a limited role early in the film that cast him effectively as what Tom Bambadil might have been if he had been allowed to be apart of the original film trilogy, but since the character is expected to make a return in the third film is serves as a very memorable introduction. Bard the Bowman is introduced in a expanded role to set up his pivotal part from this point forward, being the one that sneaks the company into Lake Town, the one who opposes the corrupt Master of the town (almost casting the Master as the Denethor to Bard's Aragorn), and one who chastises Thorin for the terror his actions will bring onto everyone. There is also a new orc villain named Bolg who is sent by his father, Azog from the first film, to hunt down Thorin and company, and by giving him a prominent role here it helps set him up for the key villain he is expected to have, along with Azog I presume, in the third film.
Oh, and going back to the Kili and Tauriel love story for a moment, there is a subplot where Kili get badly injured and is ultimately forced to remain behind with his brother Fili and two of the other dwarves to heal while the others continue towards the mountain. This plot line really stuck out to me as unnecessary the first time, reminding me of that admittedly pointless drama of faking Aragorn's death in the middle of The Two Towers, but thinking about it again, it leaves a potential door open for new possibilities at the start of the third film, leads to furthering this new Kili and Tauriel plot line, wherever they are going with it, is lessens the dwarves already petty numbers as they are about to go up against Smaug.
In speaking of which, the most glaring change that through this examiner for a loop the first time and the ones I am struggling to justify even now is that when the confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug finally happens, it starts off promising everything you expect, but then cuts away not only to reaction shots of the dwarves but also to the activity in Lake Town and to Gandalf in Dol Guldur. This is arguably the most iconic scene in the book and while I understand that Jackson needed to keep track of all the other story lines he had going at the same time, it still would have been stronger if it lingered on Bilbo and Smaug a bit longer. In the first film, the best scene was the one between Bilbo and Gollum and part of the reason for that was because it went on for so long before it cut back to the dwarves; this scene just could have gone on a bit longer before it made a jump cut. But oh well, it is still far from terribly done and it leaves you excited for every time we do cut back to the scene, then totally satisfies when it does so.
Okay, moving on from deviations from the book, one of the biggest criticisms of the first film was that the pacing was lacking and took too long for things to get going. The Desolation of Smaug benefits from having the beginning out of the way and jumps right into the action. After the opening flashback at the Prancing Pony, we get the company chased by Beorn in bear form, into Beorn's own house no less, then leaving the next door to the edge of Mirkwood, they seeing the company start falling into madness within the forest, and then, at last , all of the real fun begins! This is where we see Bilbo single-handedly fight off giant spiders to save his friends, then rescues them again once they are captured by the elves. This ultimately leads into the barrel escapes down the river, which was a fun scene in the book that I was expecting to play out like it were Splash Mountain at Disneyland, but instead Jackson came up with an excellent way to turn it into an extended action set piece where the dwarves and Bilbo are carried down the river as the orcs constantly try to kill them, resulting in the elves, the ones who captured them in the first place, to unwittingly aid in their escape by fighting off their common enemy. The action does slow down a lot once the segment in Lake Town starts, but by that point we have earned a break. And once Smaug appears...oh boy, more on that later!
While we are talking about Bilbo, his character has somehow been simultaneously strengthened and shortchanged at the same time. He gets all of the big moments you expect like saving the group all by himself twice in a row, but somehow the dwarves' praising of him for these deeds felt a bit downplayed from what I expected reading the book. That is a shame, but it is still okay, because what we do get that was a welcome surprise is clear evidence that the Ring is already starting to influence Bilbo in a way that terrifies him, something that the book doesn't seem the suggest at all. There is a scene where he momentarily drops the Ring while fighting the spiders and he panics, then as he goes to pick it up he sees what just a hatchling spider come out and he ruthlessly stabs it to death. It affects him so much that in a massive deviation from the book, Bilbo takes the ring off allowing Smaug to see him; this is a huge twist that not only makes the scene much more tense, but frankly more watchable since being forced to watch the dragon in that blurred shadow-world effect the entire time would have gotten really old, really fast.
Alright, lets quit beating around the bush and talk about Smaug himself...he is awesome! After waiting all this time to finally see the great dragon on the screen he does disappoint in the slightest. Weta's design for this creature is probably the most impressive dragon ever put the screen; trust me, those teaser trailers have only revealed a fraction of what's he is really like. But much of the credit for the character's success goes to Benedict Cumberbatch, who not only provides his voice but also a motion capture performance as well. The character may be quite up to the same level of Andy Serkis as Gollum (who also serves as second unit director on these film by the way), but Cumberbatch's deep, filtered voice and menacing presence bring this villain to life so well that your eyes do not blink whenever he is on screen.
The other characters are also given a lot of depth too, however. Thorin progresses into a darker, more obsessive character as he gets closer and closer to the mountain and especially as he becomes more desperate to find the Arkenstone. This obsession Thorin has for the Arkenstone is actually a fascinating mirror to Bilbo's growing temptation for, and eventual obsession with the Ring, making an excellent commentary on obsession and madness in general, forming a bridge between something that was implied in the book with something that wasn't, and setting seeds for a dark turn that we will see between Bilbo and Thorin in the third film. Other dwarves like Balin, Fili and especially Kili get some development as well, but the rest of them are most just caricatures wit implied personalities that we need to read into. But this did not bother me during the first film nor does it here because I understand the hardship of fully fleshing out thirteen dwarves in the midst of a story with so much going on, in fact, turns out its a even bigger challenge than fleshing out he nine diverse members of the Fellowship; plus, Tolkien leaves most of the dwarves as black slates in the book as well, so full credit to the writers for doing as much with them as they do. Legolas is portrayed as a very serious and angry warrior here as he is still years away from softening up to dwarves through his friendship with Gimli (and yes, the film does drop a blatant fanservice reference to that). Tauriel is introduced as a fierce warrior who is nevertheless intrigued by at least one member of this race that she is supposed to consider her mortal enemy, even having the courage to defy her king over it. Bard doesn't really get any major action here, but he is firmly introduced as a handsome young family man who has seen great loss and who has high morals and crusades for the well-being of the town, a total contrast to the absurdly over-the-top corruption and disgusting image of the Master of Lake Town.
The action sequences are once again top notch. The spider sequence is well shot and very creepy, just like it should be. The barrel scene, as I said, is big, fun, and even funny in places, even as the the danger mounts and Jackson's usual taste for comedic gore is balanced throughout; and yes, this is where we get a lot of Legolas's typical over-the-top amazing stunt moves, including shooting down orc while he balances on the dwarves' heads as the go down the river. Legolas gets another big action scene in Lake Town as he and Tauriel fight off Bolg and his orc pack, using Thorin's own sword no less. The climax of the film sees many of the dwarves and Bilbo all working together to outsmart Smaug and while this scene is obviously here to further pad out the film for time and to give it some fort of satisfying ending, it is still a creative, exciting, and often tense sequence that hopefully will be a great surprise to even the most devoted Tolkien purists.
As with all of these films, the visual presentation of Middle-earth is awe-inspiring, from the plain of the edge of Mirkwood, to the great halls of Thranduil's realm, to the starving and freezing Lake Town, to the gold-laden vastness of Erebor (which I loved being kept so dark and colorless whilst Smaug resides there, in contrast to the bright and busy atmosphere it had in the prologue of the first film), proving yet again that New Zealand is the only place in the world where this story can properly be told. Full credit goes to conceptual artists Alan Lee and John Howe, production designer Dan Hennah, Weta Workshop leader Richard Taylor, and all of the hundreds of amazingly talented people who all play a key role in bringing this world to life, even if I now realized that way more of it is being done digitally these days than I would like.
Two minor disappointments I had with the film are with the music and the ending. Howard Shore's score for these films are among some of this examiner's favorite film music of all time, but in The Desolation of Smaug I was surprised that the music lacked any distinctive, iconic theme that stuck in your brain after the film was over, like music for the first film did so well. As for the ending, it reminded me of my experience seeing The Two Towers for the first time in that I was expecting the second film to stop at a later point in the story, and found myself initially take aback that it instead ended earlier than that; this time it was even worse because of how ominous and abrupt abrupt of an ending it was; still, like The Two Towers, it absolutely succeeds in leaving you desperate to see the conclusion to the story a year from now.
The 3-D in this film is used to great effect, especially in the action sequences. When Smaug gets close up to the camera he looks very impressing, as it does when he breathes fire at you. But it also works in several subtle and comedic moments too, like these gigantic bees that live in Beorn's house, the effective use of snow falling as the dwarves are arrested and brought before the Master of Lake Town. In regards to the controversial higher frame rate, what surprisingly little I had to say about it in may review of An Unexpected Journey still hold true here: things do look like they are moving in fast motion, I personally found myself used to it after a while, but it will absolutely not appeal to everyone.
Like the other film in this series, The Desolation of Smaug lives and breathes on its exceptional casting. Martin Freeman is once again fantastic as Bilbo Baggins, bringing many more layers to the role than last time, including a growing darkness thanks to his possession of the Ring. He proves himself a master of balancing moments of lighthearted comedy and serious drama, moments of sheer terror and of incredible bravery. Despite having much less screen time, Sir Ian McKellen is once again perfect as Gandalf the Grey, this time getting more time to be on his own and among dark forces, thus highlighting the sheer power and heroism of the character as well as how much of a badass he really is. Richard Armitage gets a lot more layers to play as Thorin Oakenshield, as his character becomes increasingly, and dangerously, single-minded in his quest to the point of a visible madness emerging, yet also projecting this indomitable strength and authority that you expect from the young King Under the Mountain, with another layer of vulnerability that leaves you rewarded when he finally gets his chance to set foot in his old home again. Benedict Cumberbatch, as I said before, steals the show when he finally appears as the dragon Smaug, similar to how did as Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness. His presence and power projects through the digital character to create a truly awesome villain not unlike what Andy Serkis achieved with Gollum. Cumberbatch also provides voice and motion capture for the Necromancer, but this character is still being played up as as an implied force and will likely be made more concrete in the third film. Orlando Bloom reprises his role as Legolas from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and he pretty much plays it same as we all remember, as the dashing young elf with unbelievable warrior skill, only this time with much more anger than would be tempered in the original films. Evangeline Lilly in introduced as Tauriel, who makes the character her own by giving it a clearly-defined strength, willingness to do what she deems right, and a curious interest in at least one dwarf she is taught to consider a mortal enemy. Luke Evens in also introduced as Bard the Bowman, and while I was initially concerned that the looked too young and good-looking for the role, he nevertheless brings a stern seriousness and selflessness to the part that translates to heroism within this depressing environment that is Lake Town. Lee Pace portrays the Elven King Thranduil, and his performance in simultaneously regal and anger, even wrathful, befitting a leader from such an aloof culture yet with so much resentment in his past. Stephen Fry appears as the Master of Lake Town and he plays the role effectively as an entirely overblown parody of a corrupt and hedonistic ruler who care nothing for the needs of his people and only for how they can service him, and just appearing like the most disgusting human being ever, yet still somehow not feeling like his character does not belong in this world. Ryan Gage portrays the Master's aid Alfrid, who is effectively this trilogy's version of Grima Wormtongue only without the traitorous spy angle, coming off as another conniving yet effective antagonist to Bard. Mikael Persbrandt appears in a limited role as Beorn, yet his imposing presence makes the character memorable so that he sticks with you when he returns for the third film. Aidan Turner get a lot more development as as Kíli, being aloud to show a sensitive and flirtatious side in his relationship with Tauriel as well as vulnerability both physical and emotional as the story plays out. Ken Stott is very likable as Balin, playing the role like a surrogate father figure as well as a good friend to Thorin who worries over the young prince falls further into his own inner darkness, as well as becoming one of Bilbo's most supportive friend within the company. Graham McTavish remains tough and stern as Dwalin, this time with more comedic moments to play off his gruff personality. Dean O'Gorman is given a little bit more depth as Fíli, mainly in the loyalty he shows to his brother Kili, even over his loyalty to his uncle Thorin. Other dwarf performers who turn in enjoyable performances but sadly with not as much depth include Mark Hadlow as Dori, Jed Brophy as Nori, Adam Brown as Ori, John Callen as Óin, Peter Hambleton as Glóin, William Kircher as Bifur, James Nesbitt as Bofur, Stepher Hunter as Bombur, Other notable actors include Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown, Craig Hall as Galion, John Bell as Bain, Mark Mitchinson as Braga, Manu Bennett as Azog, Lawrence Makoare as Bolg, Ben Mitchell as Narzug, and Richard Whiteside as Barliman Butterbur, Dallas Barnett as Bill Ferny Sr.
Overall, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a flawed film that this examiner ended up criticizing much more than he intended to, but it is nevertheless a very fun, exciting, visually beautiful second installment in the Hobbit trilogy. It's strengths far outweigh any of it's weaknesses; heck, I feel like I have rationalized pretty much all of them. This trilogy may ultimately never truly live up to The Lord of the Rings, but it will still be a wonderful prequel to it nevertheless. Therefore, in a move I never thought I would make, I'm giving this film a low five stars.