Review by C.J. Bunce
Like Star Wars or the first of any good trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was almost a standalone story, to be watched over and over again. And like The Empire Strikes Back, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug jumps rights into the adventure and doesn’t relent until the final cliffhanger at film’s end. The Desolation of Smaug’s triumph may be a sweeping and epic inclusion of more fantastical settings and strange, new worlds than any film before it, some beautiful in their colorful grandeur, others in their dark creepiness. And more story and subplots are fit in to keep viewers on the edge of their seats for the whole two hours and forty minute tour.
It’s hard to say if this installment of The Hobbit is better than the first. It’s a wondrous tale in the same way as the Harry Potter series included the stand-out episode Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Sure, it needs to be seen in the context of what comes before it, but wow, what a great ride in and of itself, almost literally. We’d seen previews of the great dwarf barrel escape scene, but director Peter Jackson didn’t just squeeze in river ride as an afterthought. It’s full of good humor and action, something like what we imagine George Lucas intended in his pod race scene, but this effort is successful, focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of dwarves and elves alike, as they dodge the grotesque and foul Orcs under the leadership of two particularly nasty fellows, Azog (Manu Bennett) and Bolg (Lawrence Makoare). Most of the action is over-the-top, but if you’re in for a penny you’re in for a pound, and the arrows flying and dragon fire ablazing are what any fantasy fan could hope for.
Like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, Richard Armitage’s noble Thorin Oakenshield steps forward as the lead in this installment, with the adventure of Martin Freeman’s Bilbo slightly taking a backseat. That isn’t to say Bilbo doesn’t get the key scene of the film. After experiencing the growing spell and allure of the famous Ring as it absorbs his thoughts, he brutally and without thought kills a beast that stands in his way, only to slowly come back from the edge and realize what he has done. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey tells Bilbo early on that he has changed since the Shire, and Bilbo only proves the point as the epic proceeds. Freeman also proves why he was the only man for the job of Bilbo, as he uses his own brand of British charm to try to con the dragon Smaug into letting him live.
The brilliantly rendered dragon Smaug, the ocean of giant spiders, life-sized bumble bees that appear even bigger to the dwarves, the flittering birds living in Radagast the Brown’s hair–everything is picture perfect. The sumptuous Laketown must be the most beautiful old world village ever to appear on film, like a town straight out of Dickens. Its inhabitants range from a brave rogue in Luke Evans’s Han Solo-esque Bard, to his two bright daughters, to a sleazy Stephen Fry’s town Master and his own even sleazier majordomo Alfrid (Ryan Gage). Then there are the elves, under the Elfking Thranduil (Lee Pace) whose crown, costume, and mannerisms create the pinnacle of all elves. Orlando Bloom, now filled out and more mature than his work in The Lord of the Rings, has his best performance to date in this film, reprising the role of Legolas, the Elfking’s son.
But the best character in this movie wasn’t even in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel. Seeing the absence of a strong woman role in the story, Peter Jackson has included the amazing heroine Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly. Just as Gandalf saves the day in the past stories of Middle Earth, here Tauriel steps in to save the day several times, including saving the handsome dwarf Kili’s (Aidan Turner) life three times in the film, and setting up an elf-dwarf love story for the last chapter due out next Christmas. If you think you’ve seen wielders of bow and arrow before, think again, as Tauriel destroys armies with her almost martial art inspired, liquid movements. Sure, some Tolkien purests may not like the addition of such a new, big role in the film, but if you let the film stand on its own merits, Tauriel is a great update for this beloved fantasy realm.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug easily rises to the level of best of the year’s genre films with its action, humor, epic scope, and unrelenting excitement. The detailed story points, wondrous sets and costumes, and sheer amusement park fun will tempt you to keep going back for more, and the Blu-ray release will not get here soon enough for this reviewer. And hey, was that a cameo of Peter Jackson in the opening sequence?