Wednesday, December 18, 2013

'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' still bloated, but improves on predecessor

This review was originally written for KPC Media Group and was posted at KPC's website, as well as published in three daily newspapers. You can read the original review here.

As much as I'm enjoying three straight Decembers of new adventures in Middle Earth, thanks to "The Hobbit" trilogy, in this second installment, subtitled "The Desolation of Smaug," it's still clear to me that this trilogy is a case study in the "less is more" school of storytelling.

"The Desolation of Smaug" expands on the already-bloated story started in "An Unexpected Journey" last December. Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a contigent of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) march across the land of Middle Earth with the goal of reclaiming the dwarves' ancestral homeland, Erebor. 

Along the way, they battle giant spiders, orcs and wargs; get captured by the Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace); sneak into the city of Laketown with the help of a mysterious man named Bard (Luke Evans); and, of course, face off against the dragon, Smaug (voice and motion-capture performance by Benedict Cumberbatch), who destroyed Erebor and took up residence there. They meet up with Thranduil's son, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and the chief of the guards, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Oh, and at one point, Gandalf runs off to have his own adventure fighting The Necromancer, who threatens to bring darkness across the land.

In short, there is a lot going on, and it contains a lot more material than J.R.R. Tolkein's slim, delightful novel "The Hobbit" has in it. There are fights and action sequences galore, and lots of new and interesting characters to see.

And yet, here's where the "less is more" idea comes in: The best part of the entire movie is almost straight from the book, and it only features two characters. Amid all the kerfluffle of elves and dwarves and humans and wizards and orcs, the most magical part of the entire nearly three-hour movie is when Bilbo walks in to Smaug's treasure room and faces off against the fearsome dragon. It's a nearly perfect scene, taut and exciting, and with Martin Freeman showing off exactly why he was the perfect choice to play Bilbo Baggins. It doesn't hurt that Smaug is wonderfully acted by Benedict Cumberbatch and beautifully animated. It doesn't take much to believe that it's really a dragon up on the screen, instead of a series of pixels.

It's especially interesting to me that almost the same thing can be said about the best scene in the first Hobbit movie, "An Unexpected Journey." That movie only truly shines in the scene between Bilbo and Gollum. "The Hobbit" doesn't really need all of the folderol that was added - all it really needs is Bilbo, his adventure and the growth that comes from his time with the dwarves.

That's not to say that "The Desolation of Smaug" wasn't a pretty great movie, because it was. While "An Unexpected Journey" got pretty far off the rails in parts, I felt like writers Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro regained the movie's narrative footing in a big way. There were still a few awkwardly huge pauses between characters' scenes - a big chunk of time passes between the times we see Legolas and Tauriel near the beginning of the movie and when they show up again near the end - but overall this was a better composed and more consistently entertaining movie. It does suffer a little bit from being in the middle of a trilogy, since it has a pretty abrupt beginning and an even more abrupt ending, but it really is a much cleaner, better movie than "An Unexpected Journey."

And, being a pretty big Tolkein fan, I can't help but love seeing so much more of Middle Earth. There are a lot of fun nods to Tolkein's writings scattered throughout the movie, and even though some of those asides are unnecessary and even distracting from a moviemaking perspective, I get a nerdy little smile on my face when I catch them.

It's not a perfect movie, and both the book and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy are better, but I had a great time watching "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." For fans of fantasy, or just epic blockbusters in general, this latest foray into Middle Earth is a worthwhile trip.

Jenny's Take: See it before it leaves theaters.

(Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images. Runs 161 minutes.)

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