As I’m sure the rest of the world already knows, making the film adaptations for The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was kind of a big deal in both its scope and daring. Pouring in millions upon millions of dollars into a group of motion pictures with a director whose previous work was probably unknown to the mainstream audience takes a lot of nerve for a publisher. To see said film trilogy get such wonderful commercial and critical acclaim, even having ‘Return of the King’ win Best Picture, from that dare is basically that “once in a blue moon” opportunity you don’t see for a long time in the movie industry. So, when director Peter Jackson decided to go back to The Shire for adapting a much simpler book while still keeping with a trilogy template, a common reaction was whether or not this was just the milking machine hard at work. Even though I may be a tad miffed of the more aggressive artistic liberties taken in this sequel that are not in my (currently) favorite LOTR book, The Desolation of Smaug still stands as one of my favorite movies I’ve seen this year.
Let’s get this out of the way: I really, really liked An Unexpected Journey as well. Sure, if there ever was such a thing as a ‘completely objective criticism,’ the first Hobbit film would definitely get a couple of checks for the pacing that either didn’t cover much story within an expected timeframe that the upper echelons of screenwriting big-wigs have down to a science or the action scenes felt akin to a director feeling a bit puffed-up at his technical skills so he then decided to show that off as much as possible. Despite that, I’m still going to say to heck with those critics and Honest Trailers here. I still thought it was a great ride. Yes, I’ve stated flaws, but sometimes even very flawed movies can be the most interesting to watch. What makes the first act of Unexpected Journey so enjoyable is just how…fun it all felt to me, like the pages were flying off the book as these random travelers come in and have a merry good time preparing for such a daring quest. It’s ironic that in all that “unnecessary fluff” (with even more in the Extended Cut) that just makes it so fascinating to watch because it so closely resembles what the kid in me might’ve been imagining upon first exploring this world rather than this mis-presumed intention of grandiloquence on the creative team.
Well, now that that’s out of the way….
The opening minutes to Desolation of Smaug show Gandalf (Ian McClellan) and the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) in a quick flashback redelivering the central objective to their mission: retrieve the Arkan Stone and put the rightful heir, Thorin, back as king under the mountain. After that, the story kicks off right where the last one left off with Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf, and company being chased by orcs and getting into a bunch of nefarious misadventures along the way before reaching their goal, The Lonely Mountain.
From that more “picky” film critique standpoint mentioned earlier, even I have to admit that as a film this one absolutely delivers when it comes to pacing for a nearly-three hour movie: the action is much more constant and involving while most of the separate plot threads here are engaging and keep the emotional tension high-strung. The way in WHICH this is successfully achieved is the main part of contention and all the ‘milking’ suggestions made throughout the internet: a bunch of supplemental arcs outside the suggested material and some not even ripped from the previous LOTR canon. For the most part, I really think most of these almost seem like they’d have to be in there anyway to only make the final engagement that more powerful and affecting. When Gandalf stumbles away with the source material only suggesting it’s in order for Bilbo to gain the trust of the dwarves by himself, it stands to reason that the audience will find this jarring, loss-of-trump-card narration change on a dime to not make sense unless we see the stakes for Middle Earth that are at play with the necromancer sub-plot. And the bloated moments of world-building between Mirkwood, Lake Town, and both of their oppressive leaders’ actions (with Stephen Fry playing the Lake Town mayor in Dickens’ villainy fashion) also complement the idea for what’s at stake in the final chapter of this saga.
Everything added isn’t exactly perfect, however. The main annoyance that while isn’t all together bad per se but unnecessary comes in the form of a new female elf character, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Though she’s a rather cool character that knows how to use a bow-and-arrow, a forced romance triangle is brought into the mix between her and two other supporting characters. Although this other complaint has less to do with something added but rather focused upon, it’s strange to see the hobbit in The Hobbit get a back seat during the second act in favor of Oakenshield and his insatiable desire to get the Stone. The reason it feels like such a minor annoyance to me is the whole LOTR tone parallel between that desire and the Ring of Power just struck me as butting heads with the book in this regard.
Living near to a huge IMAX theater definitely has its advantages as more and more of these technologically-enhanced films are pleading with you to see them in 3D. I didn’t get that chance the first time around with Unexpected Journey and I heard a lot of complaints about the forty-eight frames-per-second giving some of the audience motion sickness. I’m not sure whether it’s the plethora of video games I’ve played over the years at higher fps then that or something else entirely, but I honestly found the picture quality, fluidity, 3D to genuinely bolster the look. Putting down such dedication to using the highest-end stuff (from the looks of it) capturing all of these vast locations, from the oppressive Dol Guldur to the resplendent caves filled with gold and jewelry inside Erebor, results in such a great amount of detail packed into these places. There are a few moments scattered throughout that do show some awkward editing, but it’s crisp and visually stunning for the most part. Plus, the CGI rendering of Smaug and all of the detail that went into him during the final big action scene looks tremendous.
The acting performances by pretty much everyone all around are a joy to see on screen. Luke Evans as Bard settles in well right from the start; Armitage does a great job with his extra screen time, even though it can sometimes feel like there’s that Aragorn-wannabe style to his presence; Martin Freeman is still one of the best in the business when it comes to that sly humor whilst everything seems to be falling apart at the seams; and then there’s Benedict Cumberbatch’s show-stealing performance (voice acting and mo-cap) as the gargantuan Smaug. Ranging from boyish over-confidence to seething rage, Smaug has to be the most interesting dragon personality I’ve yet to see in cinema.
In the end, it’s rather strange to say that through it all I’m not entirely convinced Desolation is a much, much greater improvement over its previous. I guess there’s some kind of charm behind the bigger warts within the first one, both for its new daring technical achievements it was trying to do and honest intentions, which makes me consider that such a great adventure. Yet even with my harsher judgment of this film, I still came away amazed to see such a lengthy film never feel all that lengthy. Even with the final act spinning three different stories, and thus harming the narrative thrust, or that cliffhanger ending just feeling a bit too quick, so much within the story kept me engaged from beginning to end. It’s tough to say how all this extra padding will bode for the next installment, but for now all I can say is Desolation is another home run.