The Hobbit: The (mostly pleasant) Desolation of Smaug

Last year, I did a post about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which to this day still gets regular hits on this here blog. I’ve no idea why, since I’m not going to go into the business of movie reviewing; I have enough side jobs as is. But last night, with the kid at a sleepover, my wife Kate and I indulged in a night at the movies, and since we’d heard good things about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we thought we’d give it a whirl. And since there’s precedent, I thought I’d write about it.

Short verdict: Mostly pleasant. Which means it’s an upgrade from the first one.

Long verdict: There was a fair amount to like about this movie, alongside a few glaring faults. The Hobbit as a whole is still leagues away from the masterful The Lord of the Rings films, but at least this second film had more pluses than minuses.

On the plus side, you have many of the things that make a second installment work. The stakes are higher, the action moves along faster, there’s new faces to compliment the old. At 2 hours and 40 minutes, Desolation seemed to move quicker than its predecessor, even with the now-usual lengthy CGI-laden battle scenes. The bouts of illogic that plagued the first film are minimized here, and the acting remains quite good.

On the negative side, do we really need action set-pieces and battle scenes this long? I mean, sure, there was improvement from the first film, but still there was some serious overkill here. Peter Jackson managed to infuse the battles in The Lord of the Rings with gravitas and urgency while still providing “oh, wow” visuals. Here, he’s using orc heads as soccer balls and bodies as surfboards and a pair of elves can mow through a battalion of baddies without even getting dirty. It devolved into bloody, tasteless comedy at times. Not what you need when talking about a displaced people trying to reclaim their homeland from an ancient evil.

The attempts at furthering character arcs were pretty much unsuccessful; it was like the major characters were trapped in emotional amber through much of the film. Bilbo has the ring and is getting brave, and he has a great sequence trying to talk his way past Smaug. But he’s firmly in the, “OK, let’s DO this!” mode, and while he’s the source of innovation and heroism in much of the film, Martin Freeman is given too little to do behind the eyes, so to speak. Richard Armitage’s Thorin suffers a similar fate. You get the sense that the script called for more development, but the fight scenes were too cool, and something had to give.

Still, this felt far more like an original film than the first Hobbit film. The latter felt like The Fellowship of the Ring with new characters. Desolation is at least more original in terms of plot, and has some interesting stuff going on in terms of falability and moral gray areas. Unlike the first trilogy, when the heroes were firmly on the side of right and good, the protagonists here have, at times, questionable motivations and — perhaps more importantly — they make serious mistakes. Without going into spoiler territory, there are some major blunders made here, and the consequences could be very messy.

It’s been said that The Hobbit is a children’s book, and that Jackson is trying to darken it up too much. I disagree on the “too much” part. I thought the first film was way too flip, and there were more moments of that here (the comedy of decapitation, for example). But at least we’re starting to get a sense of stakes here, and that’s not a bad thing.

Are these movies true to the book? Certainly nowhere near as much as the original trilogy. Trying to blow up the rather thin The Hobbit into three films is almost anathema to that kind of truth. But Desolation was at least a better film than the first, and that’s a step in the right direction.

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