"Desolation Of Smaug" Worthy Of Its Namesake

“The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug” is a film that shouldn’t exist. Elongating J.R.R. Tolkien’s relatively brief book into two films is a stretch. Shoehorning a third film into the middle of those is even more preposterous, a thinly veiled cash grab if there ever was one. It was no surprise, then, that 2012’s “An Unexpected Journey” strictly adhered to writer-director Peter Jackson’s mantra of “more is more,” giving audiences a laborious, CGI-heavy set-up followed by little pay off. For the first time, the general public’s love affair with the filmmaker seemed to waver and buzz for its follow-up was tepid.

The great irony is that the excess of Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy has allowed “The Desolation Of Smaug” some much-needed breathing room. The film tells a self-contained, borderline intimate story that manages to be the shortest of Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations to date – a full 40 minutes shorter than “Return Of The King” – emerging as a modest but definite improvement on its predecessor. Its problems are real, but it’s far less pedantic than was expected – especially for a film that invents as much of its narrative as it takes from its source material.

The picture follows Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he aids a band of dwarves in their quest to reclaim their homeland, Erebor. In their way are giant spiders, temperamental elves, and a misanthropic dragon known as Smaug. Most of the supporting cast from “An Unexpected Journey” returns, including Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, while Orlando Bloom reprises the role of Elven Prince, Legolas, from Jackson’s previous trilogy. Another Elven character, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), has been made from scratch to provide the story with a substantial female presence.

Other notable additions include Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman and Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-town. But it’s Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice and motion capture work as Smaug that makes the biggest impression, his booming baritone utilized artfully to provide the film’s antagonist with a suitably demonic snarl. When Smaug makes his big appearance near the end of the second act, the excellent CGI work is elevated by the actor’s voice work.

Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations haven’t been without logical problems and “Desolation” is no different. The motivations of its characters are rarely expounded upon – and occasionally contradicted – but unlike its arcane predecessor, the picture uses the implausibility of its screenplay to its advantage. One sequence in particular features the dwarves traversing raging rapids in barrels, and it’s spectacular – arguably the most viscerally thrilling scene in Jackson’s oeuvre. A few other action beats are nearly as exciting, providing the kinetic jolt that “An Unexpected Journey” sorely lacked.

The “barrel rider” scene is the perfect showcase for Jackson’s use of High frame rate photography (HFR available in select theaters). While 48 frames per second (compared to the typical 24) is jarring and unnecessary when it comes to scenes with little motion, it shines in combat-heavy sequences. Action that would normally appear choppy is crystal clear, the extra frames providing our brains with information that’s normally withheld. It’s not always comfortable, but Jackson might be onto something.

More impressive still is Jackson’s willingness to embrace an abrupt, cliffhanger-style ending. It’s surprising considering his history of overindulgence, but it signifies growth on his part – and should go a long way in assuaging critics of his stubbornness. “The Desolation Of Smaug” is uneven at times – Bilbo inexplicably takes a backseat for the film’s first half – but it’s focused enough to justify its own existence and lively enough to pique interest in the next (and presumably final) chapter. Seek the film out in HFR (high frame rate) – it adds considerable oomph to the pic’s showstopping action sequences.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: December 13, 2013
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriter: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images)