'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)

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.