★★★★ I hesitate to approach this review talking about the length of the film. But at two hours and forty minutes, The Desolation of Smaug, the second film in The Hobbit trilogy (based on one book, mind you), had me immediately looking for parts I would have cut.
I know Peter Jackson has added portions to help lengthen the story, and I'm okay with that, but here, more than the first film, we see Jackson is not above shortening great scenes from the book to make room for his own Middle-earth tales that tie this film closer to the events of the Lord of the Rings movies. It's not necessarily to the film's detriment, but fans of the book should approach it with that in mind.
The film begins with a flashback. One year prior to the events of the first film, Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield meet on a rainy night at The Prancing Pony Inn. They talk of Thorin's family's history and of the quest to come that will eventually involve Bilbo Baggins. I enjoyed this approach to opening the sequel. I didn't want a recap, and the film doesn't offer one. But it hints enough to get us thinking about the first film and where we left off.
We then drop in on Bilbo and company right where we left them, on the run from Azog the Defiler. They quickly arrive at Beorn's house. Since the last film, I've been really excited to see how Jackson handles this scene. In my mind, it would be a perfect way to reintroduce us to all the dwarves, as in the book they enter the house in pairs as Gandalf tells Beorn about them. In the book, Beorn's animals then serve the dwarves food. This is another scene I was waiting for. To create that idea of animals serving food and to make it serious and not silly would be quite the feat.
But apparently Jackson had other ideas as the dwarves all run into the house together chased by Beorn himself, in bear form. Beorn then changes back to human form, where he looks like he's the lead singer in an 80's hair band and serves the dwarves food himself, without any animal help. He then sends the dwarves on their way. Needless to say, I was disappointed.
The same thing happens in Mirkwood, a place where the book sets many trials and tribulations for our party. But the dwarves are barely there long enough to fight the spiders and then are quickly captured by the elves and taken prisoner. The few moments they're in Mirkwood are really well done and there are some great hallucinatory visuals and confusing illusions as the company loses their way and their minds.
The spider scene itself is really nice, and honestly it was the only place in the film where the 3D offered much of anything, especially when Bilbo has the ring on and the visuals go all wonky. Other than that the 3D is a wash.
The film interweaves multiple story lines, jumping from the elves, to the dwarves, to Gandlaf's quest, over to the Lake-town humans, and then to the orcs. Azog is called back from his hunt for the dwarves and puts his son, Bolg, an even uglier orc, in his place.
Legolas shows up and plays a big role in the film. There's also a strange subplot involving an elf-dwarf romance that feels unnecessary and out of place.
Once the dwarves escape from the elves, the film's best action sequence begins as orcs, elves and dwarves all battle down the banks of a raging river. It's well choreographed, full of great moments and is completely satisfying. This sequence alone is worth seeing the film for.
Radagast the Brown returns, but he has little more than a cameo here, which is a shame. He was one of my favorite characters in the first Hobbit movie. If I had to guess, I'd venture to say that he has more scenes that we'll see in the extended edition of the film when it's released.
When we arrive in Lake-town, I finally found what I was looking for. Here we find scenes that drag on, and I wanted to edit them out of the picture. The character of Bard, a human who plays a small but significant role in the book, is really expanded here. We spend a lot of time with him and Thorin and get away from Bilbo. We also get into the politics of the humans and dwarves and things get a bit dull. But then again, I've never claimed to be a Tolkien scholar.
Eventually, Bilbo and company make it to the mountain. After all they've been through, you'd think the dwarves would be up for another challenge, but within 60 seconds of not finding the secret entrance, they give up and leave, grim and defeated. It's a bit much. Bilbo of course stays, solves the puzzle and calls them all back.
Then we're back in Lake-town for some additional battles between the humans, elves and orcs. At this point, there's too much going on, and the only place we really want to be is at the mountain. We've also got the elf-dwarf romance subplot going on and I'm not even mentioning Gandalf's showdown with the Necromancer. Bouncing back and forth between all of these story lines kills any sense of momentum the movie has.
"My teeth are swords, my claws are spears, my wings are a hurricane!"
The film diverges from the book again as Bilbo meets Smaug the dragon. Smaug is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch who does a really nice job here, "You have nice manners for a thief and a liar!" Bilbo and Smaug share some great tense moments before the film erupts into its final, enormous action set piece as Smaug chases the dwarves around and is almost defeated by them. But of course he can't be killed yet, there's still a third movie on the way.
I had a lot of expectations for The Desolation of Smaug that simply weren't met by Peter Jackson and company. But in spite of myself, I really enjoyed this film. Spending time in Middle-earth is enough for me, even if it's choppy and packed to the gills with plot.
The film ends with one of the year's best final lines of dialog. As Bilbo watches Smaug flying off towards Lake-town, he says to himself, "What have we done?" It's a great note to end on and really brings the greed and selfish acts of the dwarves to the forefront, something I'm sure will play a role in next year's, The Hobbit: There and Back Again," a film I am looking forward to immensely.