Last year, when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey premiered on silver screen as the first in a trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the response it received was mostly positive to mixed. Although many praised the film’s visual style, special effects, background score & few impressive performances from its ensemble cast, the majority of criticism was targeted at the needless expansion of a single film story into three features followed by its slow-building plot. However, in my opinion, even though An Unexpected Journey failed to match the level of expectations built from The Lord of the Rings, it still commenced this latest Middle-Earth adventure on the right note and, despite its sluggish pace, ended up providing a largely satisfying experience.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second chapter of The Hobbit & continues the story right from where it was left off by An Unexpected Journey. Accompanied by Bilbo & Gandalf, Thorin Oakenshield & his company are still being pursued by Azog & his Orc party before he is summoned to Dol Guldur. Bilbo & the Dwarves then take shelter at Beorn’s home and, after Gandalf’s sudden departure, continue their quest to Lonely Mountain through the forests of Mirkwood where they are first caught by giant spiders & later taken hostage by the Wood Elves. But even if they manage to escape & make it to Erebor, they still have to deal with Smaug the dragon in order to reclaim their kingdom. Meanwhile, Gandalf visits Dol Guldur to further investigate the mysterious Necromancer, who finally reveals himself as the ancient enemy the wizard feared.
The one thing I have repeatedly acknowledged about this Middle-Earth franchise is its filmmaker’s strong intent to keep the screenplay very much within the realms of Tolkien’s spirit. Many doubts surfaced when the story of The Hobbit was split into three films but after watching the first chapter, most of it got brushed away as I ended up absolutely devouring An Unexpected Journey more than I was expecting to & even admired the fusion of the alternate plot line related to the Necromancer, for it still kept the film grounded & true to its source as the story of Necromancer is explained in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. Expecting a similar experience, I went in with great excitement for The Desolation of Smaug but this time came out extremely frustrated. If somebody reading this thought that An Unexpected Journey deviated too much from the novel, then this film is sure to push them over the edge.
There are many things that’s right with The Desolation of Smaug and way too much that’s wrong with it. Let’s start with the things it gets right. Since the previous chapter was criticised for its slow pace, the filmmakers have vastly improved the pacing in this middle chapter while also adding more action sequences to keep the entertainment going throughout its runtime. Coming to technical aspects, the production design continues to amaze with its elaborate sets of the Kingdom of Mirkwood, the ruins of Dol Guldur & the Kingdom of Erebor under the Lonely Mountain. Cinematography encapsulates the whole film in a darker layer that somehow suited this picture’s tone. The special effects by Weta Digital has its share of highs & lows but where it spellbinds its viewers, in every respect, is in the rendering of Smaug. Exquisitely designed, remarkably portrayed & meticulously detailed, Smaug is a jaw-dropping wonder to look at & the painstaking work that went into bringing this magnificent dragon to life truly deserves a bow.
Music by Howard Shore has been a consistent plus for this franchise but here, for the first time, it stumbles a little. The new tracks are no doubt interesting but their seamless fusion with the film’s plot is missing to a slight extent. Still, it isn’t really one of the things I found wrong with this film. So, let’s get started with that now. First, The Desolation of Smaug not only makes a major departure from faithfully following the book but ends up completely slaughtering it in a manner that’s plainly insulting to Tolkien’s spirit. Second, the writers’ have filled this middle chapter with anything that can justify their three-film adaptation of the novel. The fillers in the first film were still tasteful but what we have here is an absurd love triangle & overindulgence of Elves in the journey of Dwarves, both buttered with some eye-rollingly cheesy dialogues. Third, this film had a fantastic opportunity to further develop its characters but thanks to its rushed pace & more emphasis on over-the-top action over a riveting narration, we still have difficulty in recalling the correct names of all the Dwarves.
And that’s not all as there’s more to it. Bilbo Baggins is once again brilliantly played by Martin Freeman but it’s surprising to find out just how little screen time is devoted to the Hobbit compared to the previous film. The Desolation of Smaug presents Bilbo being demoted to a supporting character while the centre stage is taken by Richard Armitage’s character of Thorin Oakenshield and covers his increasing greed & obsession with reclaiming the treasure beneath the Lonely Mountain. The rest of the Dwarves get only as much screen time as they got in An Unexpected Journey except for Kili (Aidan Turner), whose screen time is upgraded so that he can be wasted as one side of the love triangle featured in this film. Orlando Bloom reprises his character of Legolas from The Lord of the Rings but his part in this adventure turns out to be overly repetitive. Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel, who was initially added to provide a feminine energy or whatever to this film but instead was given a stupid love story by the writers to work on. However, Ian McKellen again delivers as Gandalf the Grey & even his plot line related to the Necromancer of Dol Guldur was a thrilling moment in the film.
At last, I would like to talk about Smaug the dragon. Voiced & motion captured by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is a splendid beast of CGI unleashed on film canvas & is almost as unforgettable a character to this film as Gollum was to An Unexpected Journey. It had the potential to be the best character of this trilogy but unfortunately isn’t due to its inefficient handling by the filmmakers. Smaug is a very cunning, proud & intelligent dragon in the novel & although the first impressions of this stupendous dragon did capture him in the right frame but, as the movie progresses, he is slowly turned into a foolish creature that can be easily manipulated by others’ whims. Still, Smaug is what majority of viewers will love most about this sequel & his conversation with Bilbo is indeed my favourite moment in the film. Overall, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an emotionally unappealing but visually spectacular sequel which improves upon the original by introducing a much more exciting, fiercely paced & action-packed entertainment to satisfy most filmgoers, but for the devoted fans of Middle-Earth, it’s a heartbreaking disappointment that adds even more insult to injury by abruptly ending at one of the most frustrating cliffhangers in cinema history.