Reviews

'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' Has a Smart Balance of Spectacle and Character

At this point, it would be foolish to expect Peter Jackson to change his approach to The Hobbit films.


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish
Rated: PG-13
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-12-13 (General release)
UK date: 2013-12-13 (General release)
Website
Trailer

Say this about Peter Jackson's decision to expand The Hobbit into two movies, then three: it probably wasn't motivated by greed. Doubtless Warner Brothers appreciates the opportunity to make an extra movie's worth of money, but Jackson seems happy to luxuriate in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien as long as possible. Witness The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, chapter two of three in the plumped-up Hobbit saga: it is Jackson's shortest Lord of the Rings movie yet, which means that it still runs two hours and 40 minutes. Surely a simple cash-in would be easier... and shorter.

As protracted as it is, the several films' running time is not the issue so much as Jackson's constitutional inability to modulate his approach to the material. The excess that characterizes the inventive action sequences shapes the rest of the movie. The new film picks up with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and a fellowship of dwarves well into the unexpected journey initiated in the first film, yet its opening moments still bulge with exposition, flashing back to Gandalf's first meeting with Thorin (Richard Armitage), the most self-serious and least interesting of the dwarves.

Gandalf doesn't have many other scenes with the others; he spends much of the movie off on his own, witnessing portentous warnings about a gathering evil, the evil we've seen manifested in the Lord of the Rings movies. The dwarves and Bilbo, meanwhile, are cocooned by giant spiders, captured by elves, and, eventually, menaced by the dragon Smaug, among other perils. They meet some of Tolkien's characters, including the elfin archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Bard of Lake-Town (Luke Evans), and one character created by Jackson and his co-screenwriters, the warrior elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), to provide a more active female presence in an otherwise dude-heavy fantasy universe.

Tauriel does contribute some ass-kicking, but her status as, essentially, a female Legolas (and her participation in an elf/dwarf love triangle), also adds to Desolation of Smaug's overstuffed muchness. Some of that muchness is entertaining: around the midpoint of the film, the dwarves, elves, and orcs intersect for a slapstick battle down a raging river. Dwarves tumble around in barrels, arrows fly in all directions, and elves keep swooping in at the last minute. The scene, reminiscent of a chase from Spielberg's Adventures of Tintin (which Jackson produced), is not particularly suspenseful, but the choreography of mostly-animated action is dizzying fun.

But momentum that extreme can't last. And while the film offers welcome quieter moments, some of these also have a bombastic quality. The camera is constantly pulling back, rushing forward, and circling around the characters during conversations, as if every scene must contain multiple reminders of the enormity and excitement that constitutes Jackson's idea of Middle-Earth. The smallest of tasks -- like, say, finding a keyhole and walking through a door -- are turned into their own pointless epics.

The keyhole adventure, inert as it is, brings Bilbo back to the center of the movie's action. For much of its midsection, he's driven to the periphery by elf-related love triangles and Lake-Town politics (the Master of the place is played by Stephen Frye, in mostly uninteresting conflict with Bard). As in the first film, Bilbo is showcased in a late-act adventure, here when he's pitted against a character created with elaborate special effects and a wonderful human performance underneath. His solo encounter with the dragon Smaug isn't quite up to the previous movie's scene with Gollum (Andy Serkis); Benedict Cumberbatch's Smaug, while scary, lacks Gollum's unpredictability or thematic resonance. But the images, like Smaug emerging from an infinite supply of gold coins and jewelry that cascades around him, have great detail, and (as in the earlier film) Jackson achieves a smart balance of spectacle and character.

That Smaug sequence ends in a cliffhanger, of course. It has to: this is a middle movie, and while the early exposition gives it a makeshift beginning, the story can't have much of an ending. It will be concluded next year, in another epic running a minimum of 160 minutes. Per the franchise's repetitive pattern, it will look a lot like the first two films, with several beautifully animated action sequences, a few character grace notes amidst a lot of dull exposition, and many nods to the events of the first Lord of the Rings trilogy. At this point, it would be foolish to expect Jackson to change his approach, foolish, in other words, for non-fans to feel transported by elaborate, sometimes thrilling, but ultimately limited fan service.

5
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.