Dir. by Peter Jackson - 2 hrs. 41 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
Going into the second movie of a trilogy, you have to know that you're in for the bummer installment. In a three-act story, the end of the second act should set in motion whatever needs to be resolved in the third act. Usually, movies aren't sprawling trilogies, and this all plays out over the course of a couple of hours (instead of seven or eight, when we're all done and before the extended versions hit home video). If you want to see the template for this, you can consult the original Star Wars trilogy, where "The Empire Strikes Back" is the bummer movie. So, entering "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" (and much of a downer title is that?), you should expect that things are not going to end up well for Gandalf, Bilbo, and the thirteen dwarves. So no complaining!
On the heels of the first film, we find Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and the rest of the dirty dozen on the precipice of a giant forest that must be traversed due to time constraints. Gandalf abandons the crew when something more pressing pops up, and the dwarves end up imprisoned in Elvish prisons, but still make friends. When they escape, thanks to Bilbo's ingenuity, they continue their quest to reach the Lonely Mountain, and the dwarves can reclaim their ancestral land from a giant, possibly slumbering dragon named Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).
If you're familiar with the book, you'll know that this is the segment that contains both the giant evil spiders, and the escape down a river in wine barrels. And, since Smaug is in the title of the movie, it's not really a spoiler to say that you'll also finally get a good look at the dragon (and all the riches he's hoarding). Gandalf also has a solitary battle at a castle, which is separate from the rest of the dwarves and Bilbo's quest. In terms of the overall tone, the first installment was more light-hearted than this one, but then again, number two out of three has to be the bummer movie. What hasn't changed is the flair for exotic, vast settings, but a lot of them take place in vast, yet confining places (there was a lot of open space in the first installment). In terms of the big pieces, I found the giant spider material a little underwhelming, not quite up to what comes across in the book. On the other hand, the wine-barrel escape was spectacular, one of those action sequences that starts out well, tops itself, and then tops itself again after you think there's nowhere further to go.
Part of the joy of these films is seeing places that you've read about, and getting to nose around in them a bit. The forest is appropriately awful and maddening, the wood elves' land is as interesting as any of the kingdoms shown in the first film. The Harbor town, Esgaroth, is a foggy and grim place, ruled by a corrupt king played by Stephen Fry. And finally, inside the Lonely Mountain lays untold riches and a foul-tempered dragon, and it's as awesome as if Uncle Scrooge's Money Pit had come to life. Heck, even the bar that the film opens in, with a meeting between Thorin and Gandalf, is exactly the kind of bar I'd love to kill a few drinks in. The entire world is appealing, and unique, and detailed, and widely varied. This is the kind of movie you need to see on the biggest screen possible, so that you can wallow in the details and be overwhelmed by it all.
On the other hand, there isn't a ton of character development. Gandalf is Gandalf, and he's got his own thing going on. And by this point in the story, it's not really Bilbo's story, more a series of battles (as spectacular as they are) than a strengthening of character. Only Thorin really develops, cracks appearing in his facade, with the very real possibility of power and riches within his grasp. It's hard to complain about that; it's difficult to say that this film really stands on its own. It relies on the emotional depth created in the first film to give resonance to the action here, which is fair enough. Truthfully, we're having a very, very long film meted out a chunk at a time, and the final judgment of merit will come next December, when the entire thing is available. Until then, it's enough that this one, for the most part, lived up to what I hoped to see on the big screen, and in a couple of instances exceeded it, and that I had a good time watching "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." And, more important, that I'll definitely be at the theatre when part three is ready, anxiously waiting to see Smaug get his.
3.5 / 5 - Theatre (3D)