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If there was ever a movie that would fall victim to the infamous “Tomb Raider Trap”, it’s definitely this one. The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey disappointed a large number of hardcore fans but still ended up with $1 billion worldwide. So while The Desolation of Smaug is somewhat better in many of vital areas (more action, better special effects,…), will the casual audience who felt, uh, burned by the first outing show up this time around in as great a number?
Even if The Hobbit 2 is “better” than the first one, we’re still looking at a situation not unlike Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones in which the more action-packed and crowd-pleasing sequel ($649m) made less than the reportedly deserted original ($925m). Now of course the whole Hobbit trilogy basically paid for itself through the last installment, so whatever money the last two make is all-but icing on a very lucrative cake. For the record, when I talk about lower grosses the second time around, I’m not talking about anything resembling a flop or even a financial disappointment.
Even if part 2 of The Hobbit winds up taking a substantial dive, it’s still perhaps looking at (off the top of my head and not official predictions) $240 million domestic and $750m worldwide. We’re still talking massive numbers. The Peter Jackson sequel/prequel is still gonna benefit from those epic December legs, a lack of mega-fantasy competition over Christmas weekend (it’s almost Oscar bait and adult genre fare) coupled with a quite weak January slate. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the only big movie opening wide next month outside of the expansion of Mark Wahlberg’s Lone Survivor.
All of this means that I don’t feel entirely comfortable making any sort of box office predictions at this point, not even concerning premier weekend (to be honest I’d say just around the $83m that the previous Hobbit debuted with). But again, with numbers this big and the first movie paying for most of the costs associated with the whole trilogy, this is more about pride than a return on investments.
The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug is, to be honest, “better” than The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey in the same way Attack of the Clones was technically “better” than The Phantom Menace. This second film isn’t superior so much as it gives the fans what they claim they want. In this case, it cuts right to the chase and features more action than the last film. It has cameo by a fan-favorite as well as an entirely invented butt-kicking female character. It wraps up its first act with a true all-time classic action beat and has some solid creature work when the main character finally shows up in the third act. But it’s still painfully weak in the areas of writing and plotting. It doesn’t have any real character development for its mains and still lacks any sense of threat or emotional pathos. It’s “better” while still not qualifying as “good”.
The movie is still, like the last film, a plodding adventure with little character development and no urgency. The film is still not a patch on the original Lord of the Rings saga and remains a poor example of how you sometimes can’t go home again. Like its predecessor, the movie constantly sets out to desperately try to convince us that the journey of a handful of dwarfs to steal gold back from a dragon is every bit as crucial as the quest to toss a world-killing ring into a volcano.
The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug movie is full of random characters explaining in explicit detail both how the world is in instant peril for some arbitrary reason and how treacherous the quest will be for our would-be heroes. Yet it’s all for naught, since we still have little emotional investment in the characters throwing themselves in and out of harm’s way.
Ironically, the only real character work sterms from the above-mentioned “new” character, Tauriel, brilliantly played by Evangeline Lilly. Her character is introduced as a one-woman orc killing machine and gets loads of terrific action beats. Sadly, the movie instantly involves her in a romantic triangle purely on account of her gender and then has her turn her back on her duties to care for a charming wounded dwarf (Aidan Turner) who she loves. Still, my distaste in how she’s written should not negate the fact that the female supporting character gets all of the best action beats and will likely be a fan favorite. 9-year old girls will just be delightful to see a super-heroic female character to root for alongside all of the male heroes, and that’s going to count for something.
The other party to said love triangle finds Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who wasn’t in The Hobbit but makes a logical reinsertion as elves are basically immortal anyway. But Bloom looks noticeably older as the younger version of himself, and he’s given little to do other than be jealous and kill orcs, one of which he still does very well. Legolas and Tauriel’s short conversations about the elves’ responsibility to a world going to fall while they sit in their ivory tower to basically live forever are captivating, but serve only to repeat material from The Two Towers. The good news is that Bloom and Lilly show up for several genuinely entertaining scenes of orc slaughter. It’s in these moments Peter Jackson reminds us what a brilliant action director he can be.
Even if we have little emotional investment in the carnage, the fights and chases are still shot and staged with genuine creativity while edited in long fluid takes for maximum clarify. The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug movie’s first act has both an entertaining fight with giant spiders as well as a knock-out chase scene involving waterfalls and barrels that looks like Donkey Kong Country come to life. This first act climax is easily the best action sequence in a bad action movie since Optimus Prime’s IMAX forest fight from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. For those who scream for action and a gigantic dragon being threatening and scary, they will definitely walk away having gotten their money’s worth, no matter which format they chose. Sadly the screening was in 24pfs 3D, so I can’t speak for any improvements in the 48fps presentation or the overall quality of the IMAX presentation.
But the Lord of the Rings trilogy was more than just action and incident. It was about something more than just “friendship” and “courage through mass killing” and offered characters who captured our emotional engagement and our rooting interest. It’s in the plotting and character work that this movie fails to deliver. The film has no real reason for us to care if the Bilbo and the dwarfs succeed in their journey. Still, it spends much of its airing time trying to convince us otherwise through endless foreboding monologues that amount to nothing. Thorin’s (Richard Armitrage) grand scheme to sneak into Smaug’s cave and hope-against-hope that they do not wake him is a pretty terrible plan.
But The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug movie’s insistence on selling the allegedly essence of this journey cancels out any attempts to deal with the hubris or recklessness on display in any meaningful manner. Smaug looks incredible and Benedict Cumberbatch’s monologuing with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is a highlight, but then the film spends the next half hour with monotonous would-be action of little consequence before arbitrarily coming to an end.
There is little to none character work or any real story development that one could simply come in at the last half-hour and be all set for the third movie next year. The movie clocks in at over 2.5 hours, yet is filled to the brim with padding, narrative strands, and useless characters that exist purely to fill up the time and/or try to sell the stakes in a journey that has few to speak of. As a weightless action flick, I assume it fits the bill, but the hour of pure dead air between the waterfall chase and the Smaug scenes will test all but the most die-hard Tolkien fans. I can’t speak of movies never made, but I can’t help but wonder how much cleaner and more efficient the initially-planned two Hobbit movies would have been compared to the bloated three-installment affair we now have.
For those who only look for decent special effects and a few quality action scenes in a fantasy setting, The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug will probably fit the bill. But it is beyond sad that the Lord of the Rings series, which once exemplified all that a blockbuster could be, has now found itself becoming just another empty spectacle. We can and should expect more because we know what “more” looks like from the parties involved, which we are reminded of any time we hear a piece of music from the original trilogy. On a true visceral scale, The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug is a “better” movie than The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey, but it falls flat to rectify any of the fatal issues at play. It is still not nearly good enough.
Unless the last chapter can pull out something actually spectacular, this Hobbit trilogy will perhaps exist purely as a footnote to one of the greatest cinematic accomplishments of our time.