When Smaug slowly emerges from the massive pile of treasure at the heart of the Lonely Mountain, making only his eyes visible and keeping his immense size a mystery from the audience, the young nerd deep inside of me was just about as gitty as you can be. I was hooked, drawn into the world of Middle-earth in a way I never imagined possible again, especially after the first part of this Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, turned out to be such a massive disappointment.
If there’s one thing I can say for certain about this latest Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, it’s that it’s better than its predecessor in nearly every way: It’s more exciting, the story is more coherent, and the photography is a hell of a lot better. Yes, when compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves of Erebor falls short. But if Desolation is any indication of what comes next, The Hobbit trilogy may be able to yet craft its own unique take on the world of Tolkien — assuming Peter Jackson stops pushing hard for this to be a prequel, and allows this adventure to stand on its own two feet.
Desolation continues where Unexpected Journey left off, and it contains a lot less filler than last time. The story is more straightforward, lacking the long, boring dialogue-heavy moments of its predecessor. That being said, there are still problems with the narrative. Like most prequel works, Desolation seems obsessed with filling in gaps that lead up to Lord of the Rings. And most of the gaps simply do not need to be filled. I don’t need to know how Sauron began to rise again, especially when it takes away from the quest of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to reclaim his homeland.
Still, “prequel syndrome” sins aside, if this movie were about thirty minutes shorter it would have a solid story; most of it works just fine. Granted, The Hobbit lacks the emotional depth and sophistication of the Lord of the Rings, but I don’t think that’s what the film is aiming for. At last the direction of Peter Jackson has given The Hobbit a voice of its own, and the route chosen is that of fantastical escapism. Simply put, Desolation isn’t the smartest movie you’ll see this year, but at least it’s entertaining.
I complained about the abuse of CGI in Unexpected Journey, and I wish I could say the use of computer effects was toned down for Desolation – but they aren’t. There’s one scene that features a CGI Legolas (Orlando Bloom) walking on the head of CGI dwarves as he fires CGI arrows at CGI orcs, all he while standing in front of a blue screen. And honestly, it kind of looks awful; my brain was taken out of my suspension of disbelief almost immediately. I will admit that sometimes the cartoony nature of the action was fun, but most of the time I just found myself longing for the real model sets, actual location shoots, and costumed actors that made The Lord of the Rings so beautiful and memorable. What little of this classic filmmaking brilliance there is in Desolation looks gorgeous, but I was left wanting a whole lot more.
All criticism aside, I still thoroughly enjoyed this second Hobbit film. For a nerd like me who couldn’t wait to see Smaug the Magnificent on the big screen, the result was a success. The Golden dragon is voiced perfectly by Benedict Cumberbatch and looks absolutely alive, even if he’s a wholly CGI creature. If you’re a fan of the book and you can look past the additions and changes, chances are you’ll really love this movie. Let’s pray to the Evenstar that this doesn’t end up being the only decent chapter of the trilogy; there’s still one movie left to go.