The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review: A More Appropriate Welcome Back

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Remember the excitement and wonder of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Surprise, surprise, it’s back.

When the first Hobbit entry, An Unexpected Journey, hit theaters last December, audiences got a detached adaptation of the first third of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novel. It was overlong and many of the characters felt underdeveloped.

It seems Peter Jackson got some of his passion for Middle Earth back for this middle entry though. Picking up right where we left off, an orc pack hunting Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellan), and the 13 dwarves. Not a 45-minute long dinner scene.

The Desolation of Smaug feels more like a chase movie than any of Jackson’s other Middle Earth films. The orcs are consistently on the tale of the dwarves, laying tension onto this film that was missing from its predecessor.

In the meantime, our heroes confront spiders (it’s freaking gross), elves (including the return of Orlando Bloom as fan favorite Legolas), and one hell of a dragon.

It’s an episodic fantasy adventure that captures the lighthearted spirit of the novel and the dramatic tension of the previous trilogy. Look no further than the barrel escape sequence featuring all 13 dwarves and Bilbo rafting down a river at high speeds as elves and orcs fight in the trees above them.

No, the majority of the dwarves escaping are pretty unimportant. But that’s why Jackson added Legolas and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) to the mix, giving the heroes of the Hobbit trilogy a bit more diversity. The latter might be the best female character in this trilogy and the last.

But the familiar heroes are hardly skimped on. While ten of the dwarves are essentially extras, Thorin (Richard Armitage) is far more interesting in this film than the last, while Balin and Kili (Ken Stott and Aidan Turner, respectively) continue to be the only other dwarves worth mentioning.

Bilbo joins Thorin in raising his interesting bar. Both heroes are walking a thin line between good and evil. It’s clear Thorin is obsessed with his goal, and will do anything and everything to achieve it, even if it means sacrificing his burglar. Meanwhile, Bilbo is slowly falling victim to the One Ring, the effects of which play out in the Rings trilogy.

But heroes aren’t the only improvement. With Gollum no longer around as a poster boy, Smaug (voiced sinisterly by Benedict Cumberbatch) takes over. The hulking dragon may be the best CGI creation since Gollum showed up over a decade ago. He’s terrifying and his movements feel fluid and organic.

Unfortunately, as with The Hunger Games: Catching FireDesolation ends on way too abrupt of a cliffhanger. Even the Lord of the Rings films always were able to stand on their own. As great as Desolation of Smaug is, there’s no payoff, and we have to wait until next December to get some. 

Still though, this film is an achievement. An Unexpected Journey pointed toward another disappointing prequel trilogy to a beloved series. The Desolation of Smaug makes sure that film was just a bump in the road by being thrilling, fantastical, and just overall better than its predecessor. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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