Featured Critic; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
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When last year's The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey hit, I addressed the central question being asked by most fans of the Lord of the Rings films: "How could something so relatively slight, an explicitly childish work that's little more than a richly populated retelling of the Beowulf myth, live up to the scope of the LOTR trilogy?"

I argued that the first Hobbit film did exactly what it needed to do, resetting the stage for another set of films, similar works with obvious echoes but very much their own pieces of the puzzle. This is a mighty journey, so there's bound to be a considerable amount of baggage. For many, the first Hobbit film felt superfluous, and talk of the expansion of the slight novel was dismissed as mere folly or a cash grab on the part of Jackson and company.

For those disposed to this negative sentiment, the fifth film in this series will do little to disabuse you of those notions. For The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is, on first blush, more of the same. We've got more traipsing dwarves, more action sequences, more somber intoning by wizards, and many, many more shots of the seemingly extraterrestrial vistas of New Zealand.

Yet I say this explicitly, not as a fanboy or someone blind to the Jacksonian quirks that some find tedious: if you don't like The Desolation of Smaug, if you're honest you probably didn't like the Lord of the Rings films very much, either. For even more so than the previous outing, this chapter feels very much like a (welcome) expansion on the world that the original trilogy helped create. The Tolkienian landscape is a rich one with many places to explore, and I for one refuse to begrudge these extraordinary filmmakers taking more of my time to delve into the nooks and crannies of this rich narrative.

While the last film opened with a prologue similar to The Fellowship of the Ring, this one opens with a flashback almost similar to the one used in The Return of the King, with a setting that equally reminds very much of Aragorn's introduction to the saga. This brief prologue, along with other elements later in the film, provide direct cues to the greater whole. For some, this may feel derivative, but as anyone who has ever delved into Tolkien's world, these ripples-through-time practically define his master work. It's exactly these connections, through rich genealogies and throwaway lines of inter-connectivity, that hint at the vast constellation of characters and histories that Tolkien reveled in.

This is not to say the film requires one to have read the source material, for this film diverges more sharply from the source material than any of the others in the saga. The most (needlessly) controversial is the fabrication of a character, Tauriel, a representative of the Sylvain elves and one who plays a critical role throughout the film. Capably played by Evangeline Lilly, she represents but one aspect of the way that Jackson and his writers have wrestled the sparse narrative of The Hobbit into something approaching the complexity provided by Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings books. 

hobbit-desolation-of-smaug-photo-02-350.jpgThese changes illustrate definitively what sets an exceptional adaptation apart from a mediocre one: a careful balance between the manifest devotion to the source material and the creative freedom to make these very much their own works in a different medium. These films are great not just because of Tolkien's stories, in some fashion they're great despite elements of Tolkien's prose that if simply transcribed into script form would have made the screen versions both pedantic and convoluted.

Thus, we have Legolas running around a world that purists may point out preceded his very creation at the hand of Tolkien, we've got Radagast and Azog, and other elements that were merely hinted at or described in further detail in the Appendices. Once again, it's to the credit of all that none of this feels superfluous or tacked on, but instead does what any prequel should do - provide a buildup for what's to come, while very much existing on its own terms and telling its own story.

Only the most cynical or contrarian of viewers would see that The Desolation of Smaug does anything less.

It helps that this chapter of the story is able to delve right into the narrative - with the first film taking care of all the obligatory introductions, we're free (some would say finally) to march along with our characters as they make their fateful journey. This is the film where some of the more iconic elements of the source book are presented on screen - the barrel ride, the visit to Lake-town, the encounters with Beorn, and the battle of wits with a giant dragon. 

All of these elements are ripe for cinematic exploration, and Jackson doesn't disappoint. From the flume-ride soggy fun of the barrel chase to the mine-shaft mayhem in the former kingdom of Erebor, much of the movie plays as a theme-park ride, as action packed as any Indiana Jones film. This makes this in many ways a more fun film, one with some absolutely terrific visual moments the equal of any action-adventure.

There are also some delicious moments of darkness - one of those "extra" scenes is one of the film's finest, and the visually stunning way that Jackson captures this nightmarish encounter between one of our lead characters and a powerful enemy is a thing to behold.

There have been dozens of dragons onscreen, but the long-awaited arrival of Smaug - performed in a particularly effective, sneering basso profondo voce by Benedict Cumberbatch - lives up to even heightened expectations. The animation is extraordinary, and while it won't quite get the plaudits that the (revolutionary) Gollum/Sméagol work did, it's still mindboggling for me to think how in my lifetime I've seen the evolution from ILM's superb go-motion work on Dragonslayer to this latest incarnation of this onscreen beastie. 

hobbit-desolation-of-smaug-poster-300.jpgThe cast continues to please - Martin Freeman in particular is given more to work with as his character becomes more complicated. There will be plenty more for the likes of Richard Armitage to do in the next installment, but he still provides Thorin with appropriate levels of kingly gravitas. Yet it's Ken Stott's pitch-perfect Balin that again impresses, his contribution easy to overlook, yet perhaps the closest to rivaling the ever astonishing Ian McKellen in terms of exhibiting both grace and intensity when required.

If I'm obliged to pick nits, there are a couple of moments where the film's running time is made a bit more manifest. The sequence with the spiders, while dispatched relatively quickly, still feels a bit too much like other scenes we've seen several times before. Yet other supposedly superfluous elements, such as the further development of the Necromancer character, provides the kind of richness that marks this film as superior to its predecessor. There's a gloom in this chapter, not unlike the dread that befalls Mirkwood, and this makes the tale seem a little bit more ... adult, I guess, at least more consequential.

This is a film that's a better balance between setting a tone and delivering exposition, one where characters are allowed to develop while ginormous action sequences unfold.

Quite simply, The Desolation of Smaug has elements the equal to any part of the previous iterations. In time, the division between the Hobbit films and the LOTR trilogy will be seen as a mere inconvenience of chronology, as the separation is actually far less than even in the original books. These works remain the pinnacle of this type of cinematic epic fantasies, and it is this blend of both comfortable familiarity and outright wonder at the spectacle that makes this film work as well as it does.

For now, however, we have the pleasure of seeing a film of this scope and level of execution show up on our screens in consecutive Decembers. In a sea of comic book adaptations and other extravaganzas that built upon the work that Jackson and others helped contribute, it still remains a particularly satisfying thing to go back to this narrative, with these rich and wonderful characters as they again travel through the paths of Middle Earth. As an audience, we are literally traveling there and back again, and with The Desolation of Smaug, I'd suggest you're in for a hell of a ride.

[For those interested in such things, the press screening for the film was in 3D, non-HFR. The imagery was certainly captivating, but I did find myself wishing for a first time that I'd seen it with the unique visual style presented last time out with 48fps. I will be doing a follow up on the HFR experience when that version screens, for now here's my take from last year on the "unknown journey" surrounding High Frame Rate presentations.]

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens in theatres across North America on Friday, December 13. 

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J.R.R. TolkienLord Of The RingsMartin FreemanPeter JacksonThe HobbitFran WalshPhilippa BoyensGuillermo del ToroIan McKellenRichard ArmitageKen StottAdventureFantasy

More about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

More about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

EcthelionsbeardDecember 7, 2013 8:37 PM

Seeing this thursday night. I hope it's good. Do I ever.

rage72December 7, 2013 10:51 PM

Seen this the other day...IMO it's a way better movie than the first Hobbit..but overall, been there done that. I think this is beginning to be LOTR overkill right now. Meanwhile, someone brought up a good point, how is it there are Asians and Blacks all the way on Asgard, but none in middle earth?hmmmm lol

ScorchDecember 8, 2013 12:24 AM

there are blacks and asians, they just exist in different parts of Middle Earth. The 'asian' race in Middle Earth is from this place called Rhun, and the 'black' race is from Harad. The stories don't go there much though, so you mostly see white people

hernan_nDecember 8, 2013 1:16 AM

I disagree with the notion that if you didn't like The Hobbit, then you probably didn't like LOTR. The problem with The Hobbit is that Peter Jackson felt the need that this simple whimsical tale needed to be as epic as LOTR. There's little doubt in my mind that The Del Toro version would have been far more interesting.

AntP27December 8, 2013 4:24 AM

If you've seen this film Rage, then you will know there were Blacks and Asians in Laketown during the second half of the film.

rage72December 8, 2013 10:17 AM

I agree.

rage72December 8, 2013 10:20 AM

First off, I said this was brought to my attention by someone else, I could care less whether asians and blacks are in these stories or not...I did indeed see the film, I must have missed that, upon another viewing, in which I plan on seeing in IMAX, I'll make sure to look for that.

Jackson has become the LucasDecember 8, 2013 11:27 AM

I'm perfectly fine with "Pacific Rim" in lieu of Del Toro's "The Hobbit." I still wish he'd make "At The Mountains of Madness" at some point but that seems pretty much dead after "Prometheus." Oh well.

That said, I loved all three LOTR movies and yet found "The Hobbit" to be a total snooze. The fact is that as much as the die-hard fans are unwilling to admit it, Peter Jackson has turned "The Hobbit" into the Middle-Earth equivalent of the Star Wars prequels: indulgent, unnecessary, and jam-packed at winking nods and easter eggs for super-fans only, norms need not apply.

In the process Peter Jackson seems to have forgotten his roots as a kinetic, visceral director who still managed to be a virtuoso on a shoe-string and now seems content making three hour assemblages of video game cut-scenes.

Jason GorberDecember 8, 2013 12:22 PM

I still think there's overpraise of elements of LOTR, and underpraise of the HOBBIT for similar things.

See this iteration (or, better yet, review after all three are completed) and see if you still feel the same way.

TKD007December 8, 2013 12:48 PM

Well first of all people always complain that the movies are never as good as the books... Not in the case of The Hobbit. The fact that Peter Jackson included everything in the book into the movies is a great thing!! You can never please everyone though. People will never be satisfied.

davebaxterDecember 8, 2013 4:00 PM

"Only the most cynical or contrarian of viewers would see that The Desolation of Smaug does anything less."

Not that I dislike the Hobbit movies, but this statement is full of b.s. It turns this write up from a review into a fanboy screed (poetic as you obviously wrote that to dismiss generic fanboy bitching). You can't generalize all possible disagreement with your viewpoint for the sake of dismissing it in advance. When did Twitch start to become BuzzFeed and become disgruntled with all possible negative feedback of mainstream content? This is a definite trend on this site.

You guys need to drink a little less of the Kool Aid and just stick to having independent opinions sans the burning need to shoot down all possible "little people" gripes. Or whatever you'd call it. Especially since you guys have been largely incorrect on why those who have negative feedback have it at all.

With the Hobbit movies, it isn't about them being subpar to LOTR, per se, though certainly some will feel this way. It's more each individual's threshold for repetition: the Hobbit movies are more of the same, without a great deal of innovation beyond. That's...fine...but not exactly the best way to follow up something that actually was ground-breaking. It's fair to be disappointed by something that comes across as a cash grab and a relatively uninspired, if occasionally clever, rehash of something from many years ago.

Hobbit will be entertaining for some, it won't be for others. Nothing cynical or contrarian about either stance.

Jason GorberDecember 8, 2013 6:35 PM

Hey, thanks for the comment. While I'm not really going to address the personal attacks, I will point out I was being pretty specific about what a prequel should do - "provide a buildup for what's to come, while very much existing on its own terms and telling its own story." Do you disagree that the film does this? Have you seen it yet? Or are you simply reading one sentence out of context and thinking it's indicative of a trend here on the site? Are you irritated with the source material (which itself is highly repetitive) or the films?

It may indeed be "fair to, in your words, "be disappointed by something that comes across as a cash grab
and a relatively uninspired, if occasionally clever, rehash of something
from many years ago". I'd also argue it'd be an inaccurate reading of what's taking place, and perhaps indicative of a larger disappointment with the film regardless of any of its qualities as a standalone work, indicating a level of bias that would be patently unhelpful for one in my profession.

Blind_Boy_Grunt_1235December 9, 2013 12:03 AM

"Cash grab" is such a nonsensical cheap shot. You're asserting that the LOTR trilogy was as an act of charity, I suppose. No, in reality, ALL six films were/are created with the exact same artistic and commercial ambitions. The fact that you like one set of them and not the other doesn't change this.

davebaxterDecember 9, 2013 1:03 AM

Not even factually true. LOTR was an enormous risk the first time around. It was a hail mary in hopes of pulling the production company out of the tailspin it found itself in, but there was little guarantee of success when they greenlit all three films in one go, on the scale and budget that they did it for to boot. Before LOTR, this was not a common practice. After LOTR it definitely became one. Plus, the books were considered far too difficult to adapt into live action

"Cash grab" is not the same as the average "we did this because we thought it would make money" motive, which as you note is everywhere. "Cash grab" is usually meant to indicate a decision wherein a) the profit is virtually guaranteed, and b) there's little creative reason for it outside of the guaranteed profit (or due to the guaranteed profit too little effort is put into it, as all the money men want is the proven formula). Hobbit, I personally think, is more than a mere cash grab, but its disappointments have toed the line a bit too close to be free of all scorn, and many others do feel its coming across as a pure cash grab, due to the creative elements being thoroughly non-innovative in comparison to the LOTR films plus this coming after the potential newness that del Toro could have offered (I'm not a fan of del Toro, but I understand the theory here).

davebaxterDecember 9, 2013 1:17 AM

It only feels personal because you're the only one who wrote the article. It's no less personal to have a line like "Only the most cynical or contrarian of viewers would see that The Desolation of Smaug does anything less." when someone falls under that umbrella and is neither cynical nor contrarian about the film.

I've seen the film, but my point here is only reading one line very much in context and believing it's indicative of a trend on this site.

Also: the film is not a standalone work, nor should something of its nature ever be considered as such. It's the second of a trilogy, which is a prequel to another trilogy, all of which are adaptations of novels. There is nothing standalone about a prequel-sequel-adaptation. The makers of the movie did not make it as a standalone movie - they made it as a prequel-sequel-adaptation, and part of the reason they did so was to gain all the benefits naturally associated with making a prequel-sequel-adaptation. It does not therefore get to dismiss all natural obstacles that come with the same, chiefly comparisons to previous installments and comparisons to source material. To treat something like this latest Hobbit film as a "stand alone" film is just wishful thinking. Much like I once commented in defense of your bringing in your personal experiences and thoughts about Shymalan into a review as perfectly natural (paraphrase: I'd rather have a reviewer that's honest about their personal histories is regard to material than reviews that pretend there is no such thing, which is just willful dismissal of something that is present anyway"), here I believe the same - treating a film that is not standalone by any stretch of that definition, as standalone, is willful but illogical.

That said, I'm not sure I understand what "bias" you think this would bring that would be unhelpful to someone in your profession?

AntP27December 9, 2013 2:39 PM

No need, Rage, you can see from this clip in Laketown -

Jason GorberDecember 9, 2013 3:34 PM

I have a feeling we may (as per usual) be in closer agreement than I at first read. Yes, we're reviewing chapters of a whole, but I stand by what I said, that this is an enjoyable chapter, at least the euqual (and in some ways superior) to what has come before.

I have a feeling further discussion on this matter between us should be done in longer form off site.

MovieJayDecember 10, 2013 7:55 PM

Interesting discussion. And now for something completely different: I'm glad I'm not a kid growing up on this. I've never been one to pull the nostalgia card, but I'm glad I was a kid growing up on "Princess Bride", "Neverending Story", "E.T.", the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, and Superman. Those were fun. Times are different now. The franchises we're seeing are made to go on forever. Pure fun, cleverness, wit and charm I suppose are regarded as bad or weak now because they're doing total fun-lobotomies on every big budget piece of entertainment coming our way recently. It has to be end of the world, brow-beatingly serious. Maybe "Iron Man" is the only exception.

I was there for the first LOTR movie, but the series has turned into a serious test of my patience with how much of a self-important drag it all is. I have to endure meeting everyone's family tree before anything really gets started. And once things do get started, it's bait 'n' switch with the little people giving way to the big people fighting the battles.

This series of movies, no matter how bad or boring or snooze-inducing, appears to have an entrenched core of about three-quarters favorability among critics and audiences, with about a quarter of us feeling like Gene Siskel when he said one time about a film "at least this is an excuse for adults to make out and eat candy in the dark in public".

These actors are very brave for being able to keep straight faces through the tedium of speaking forever in grave pronouncements. I had fun with these books as a child, and feel that's what's missing from this stuff. I'm happy for all the people who are happy with it, but needed to chime in as part of the small minority who find this stuff a great big pile of hokum. As for the "cash grab", I sincerely believe Peter Jackson wants to make good movies that also make money. Who the hell doesn't want to make money? I just think he's so in deep, like the Magic Carders or like any other culty people, that they're blind to the simple pleasures of action, adventure, romance, fun, comedy, etc.

john martinDecember 15, 2013 12:01 PM

I loved this review, it made me rethink the movie and appreciate it even more. Jackson's movies are so rich in detail that seeing it once is not enough. Further not reading the source material, or the books is mandatory for understanding the individual movies. Clearly Jackson errors on the side of the Tolkien fans by not wasting our time with flashbacks in every film. Anyway thanks Jason for putting the movie in perspective for me!

Jason GorberDecember 15, 2013 10:40 PM

Hey, cheers, thanks for the kind words