Last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opened to mixed reviews from both critics and fans. Many viewers felt the movie’s plot simply moved too slowly. Thankfully, Peter Jackson redeems himself in its sequel, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Desolation of Smaug picks up where An Unexpected Journey ends. Bilbo Baggins the hobbit, the exiled Thorin Oakenshield and his gang of dwarves, and the mighty wizard Gandalf continue their journey to Lonely Mountain to kill Smaug, the deadly dragon, and reclaim their kingdom along with all the gold and treasure stashed away in the mountain.
Martin Freeman returns as Bilbo, Ian McKellen reprises his role as Gandalf, Richard Armitage as Thorin, Orlando Bloom as Legolas and Aiden turner as Kili, to name a few of the main characters. Needless to say, the cast was the least of our worries going into the movie.
Right off the bat, Desolation of Smaug’s pacing is so much more quicker than An Unexpected Journey. If the first movie had too much character development, then the second movie in The Hobbit trilogy is mostly action. Ugly shape-shifter named Beorn? Check. Freakish orcs speaking in an incomprehensible language? Check. Handsome Legolas and sexy badass she-elf named Tauriel (whom Legolas is deeply infatuated with) slicing and dicing orcs without any remorse? Check. Desolation of Smaug has all of the right ingredients for a film that’s long enough (161 minutes to be exact) for Tolkien fans and movie buffs to get absorbed in, but also quick enough so younger fans don’t fall asleep waiting for Smaug the dragon to come out.
As in An Unexpected Journey, Freeman does an absolutely outstanding job bringing to life Bilbo’s internal conflicts, whether that’s struggling to fight off the power of the ring or finding the courage to slay gigantic spiders. In Desolation of Smaug, Bilbo’s dialed up courage and wisdom from the ring are in full force when he steals the prison cell keys to rescue the dwarves – who were captured by the elves. He then figures out the key hole to the Lonely Mountain is revealed, when the last light is shone from the moon and not the sun.
At first the dwarves seemed earnest in their quest, but three-fourths of the movie in, you just start hating Thorin and his pack of greedy little shorties. Yes, they hired Bilbo to be “the burglar” and steal back treasures such as the highly valuable Arkenstone, but Thorin’s inconsistent back and forth logic on whether Bilbo should live or die by Smaug’s wrath only heights your disgust for him and the dwarves’ treasure-driven motives.
In one particular scene, Thorin decides to rescue Bilbo for fear Smaug may have killed him in the mountain’s cavernous halls. But then, once he finds Bilbo running for his life away from the fire-breathing dragon, he can only pester Bilbo on whether he was able to retrieve the Arkenstone, despite the fact it would have cost him his life. I suppose this tension is exactly what Jackson wanted to instill in viewers, but threw me off, making me wonder who the real enemy was. Was it Smaug or Thorin?
Of course, the real star of the show is Smaug (hint: it’s not pronounced like “smog”). Not only is Smaug possibly the prettiest computer generated dragon we’ve ever seen, but it’s also voiced by the talented Benedict Cumberbatch, who pulls double duty as the voice of the Necromancer. Cumberbatch’s Smaug is witty, authoritative and well-scripted to the point where you just want to root for him every single time he sends his flames of inferno shooting out his mouth at Bilbo and the dwarves. Sadly, Smaug’s flames don’t actually hurt any of our height-challenged stars.
Let’s face it, 3D isn’t for everyone, and when done poorly, the entire movie experience suffers. On the other hand, watching a movie in IMAX is rarely a letdown. Despite years of 3D movie releases, there hasn’t been a movie that could hold a candle to James Cameron’s Avatar. In Desolation of Smaug, Jackson proves his mastery of manipulating the three dimensional plane is on par with Cameron’s eye. While Jackson abuses large swooping camera angles to drive the effectiveness of 3D in Desolation of Smaug, the added visual depth never feels acutely forced. Sure, I got irritated at some of the camera angles straight down a sword’s blade or arrow, but it’s all worth it when you see Smaug cloaked in sparkling gold, flying into the sky ready to take his revenge on the people of Lake Town at the end of the movie. The combination of a larger theater projection screen and expertly crafted 3D assuaged my initial fears of the movie’s fights and action sequence being disorienting.
All in all, Desolation of Smaug improves on An Unexpected Journey in virtually every way. Jackson’s latest masterpiece is worth a watch in IMAX 3D for the fact it’s one of the better done 3D movies. If you’re sensitive to the whole 48 frames per second “high framerate” (HFR) being too “realistic and lifelike”, it’s probably best to stick to the standard 24 frames per second viewing.