Editor’s note: Apprentice Critic Elaine continues to help out with the holiday glut while I’m busy preparing the 7th Annual EMOs. Enjoy!
One of the most delightful scenes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” is when our hero, Bilbo Baggins, conceals his 13 Dwarf friends in empty barrels and floats them down the river to escape imprisonment. If any scene of Tolkien’s work should be brought to life, then this is the one, and director Peter Jackson does not disappoint in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” The Dwarves in barrels represent the very best of the book, charming and childish while dangerous and dynamic, a spirit Jackson has finally found after an uneven, awkward first installment.
Whereas “An Unexpected Journey” was laudable mostly for its return to Middle-Earth, “Desolation” is a genuine adventure in its own right. With its epic battle sequences, spectacular sets, and memorable characters, this film hearkened back to the spirit and grandeur of “The Lord of the Rings”, though still falling short of it. For therein lies Jackson’s greatest challenge: to operate within the well-trodden paths of Tolkien’s world while keeping these adventures original and fresh. Though in this movie he sometimes slips and slides on the morass of connecting the two sets of films, he serves up plenty of action, spectacle, and charm to make “Desolation” a markedly better effort than its predecessor.
Picking up where the first movie left off, the Company continues its journey toward the lost Dwarf homeland of Erebor while being pursued by Orcs. Their quest takes them through forests and lakes, facing spiders, Elves, and other enemies, with memorable stops in Mirkwood and Laketown. While “Journey” took us back to beloved old haunts, in “Desolation” Jackson’s team conjures up new realms with beauty, imagination, and innovation. The town that rises from the water and the woodland kingdom exude grace and authenticity, as if they had always been there and have granted us the honor of a short stay. Mirkwood is an Elven kingdom to rival the elegant Rivendell and ethereal Lothlorien, whereas Laketown is a blend of splendor and squalor suggesting glory days long ago. Both of these places are filled with freshness and wonder, and inspire an interest in their peoples lacking in the first film.
The tyrannical leaders of these respective realms, Thranduil (Lee Pace, plus elk antlers) and the Master (Stephen Fry, plus disturbingly orange hair) match the vivid design of their kingdoms by delivering pitch-perfect performances. Thranduil radiates majesty that makes his greed and cruelty all the more chilling, whereas Fry strikes the perfect balance between inept and menacing. (Fry posed like Louis XIV is reason enough to see this movie.) Laketown’s voice of dissent takes shape in Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), one of the film’s best-developed characters. While everyone, from the Dwarves to Thranduil to the people of Laketown, is concerned only with his own gain, Bard asks important questions about the consequences of the Dwarves’ quest.
Another of Jackson’s achievements with this series is the Dwarves. Tolkien himself never bothered to give them individual personalities, Thorin aside, but Jackson continues to encourage their quirks and identities. Kili (Aidan Turner), the token young-and-attractive Dwarf, is given an entire side-plot, with one touching scene in particular where he talks about his home and his mother. This unusual fray into the emotions and thoughts of the Dwarves adds a softer, more poignant perspective to Thorin’s melodramatic calls for a reclaimed homeland.
Kili’s moment, however, is the perfect example of the general lack of character development in the series so far. Jackson is far too eager to pile on the action sequences, like a little boy showing off his new toys, at the price of giving his Dwarves, Hobbits, and Elves backstories and personalities to make us care about their fate. “The Lord of the Rings” succeeded because Jackson understood that characters and relationships are even more important than the battles—that the characters need something to fight for—a truth he seems to have forgotten here.
One character who does not suffer from this lack of development is Bilbo (Martin Freeman), a feat due entirely to the actor. Bilbo is not given the opportunity to speak much, but with a few nervous footsteps, a wrinkle of his nose, or a little wave of the fingers, Freeman speaks volumes. After he viciously kills a spider out of his increasing need for the Ring, Freeman is able to convey Bilbo’s tortured self-realization wordlessly in the space of seconds. When he does speak, his calm delivery keeps the movie grounded through all its fantastic battles and flights of fancy. Freeman is also the star of one of the best scenes in the film, holding his ground against the stupendous Smaug the dragon. With chilling voice and movement provided by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug dwarves all of the foes the Company faces throughout the long movie and makes for a suitably dramatic finale.
Peter Jackson still cannot free himself from the shadow of his own creation, trying too hard to reprise “The Lord of the Rings” without realizing that the greatest tribute he could pay is to give Bilbo, Thorin, Kili and company the same kind of life and fire he gave to Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas and friends. It is perhaps unfair that these movies will always be judged in relation to their predecessors, but that is simply Jackson’s cross to bear. For the final chapter, he should shake himself free of the desire to replicate his former success and shorten the action scenes in favor of character development. It is irrelevant how many incredible stunts or innovative camera angles there are when the audience does not care who wins the fight, particularly if there will be another one within five minutes.
Still, with its breathtaking sets and fantastic cast, “The Desolation of Smaug” manages to capture some of the spirit that won so many hearts to Middle-Earth years ago, marking an unexpectedly large improvement from “An Unexpected Journey.” If Jackson can manage the same progress for “There and Back Again,” then the third time will really be a charm.
Now playing in theaters.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars