The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (2013)

Rating: ***
Release Date: 12/13/13
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry

A disappointing and overly long exercise in excess and conceit, crushed by the weight of indulgence and unfettered artistic license. Nowhere is this more evident than in the very first scene, where director Peter Jackson himself is the first person we see on the screen. As a continuation of "An Unexpected Journey" (2012), the film follows Bilbo Baggins' (Martin Freeman) grand adventure with a company of dwarves through Murkwood Forest on their way to Lonely Mountain. Of course, Thorin's (Richard Armitage) ancestral home is now guarded by the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the dwarves have to figure out how to defeat him and reclaim their gold. But that won't come until the next film. If nothing else, the final film in this overblown trilogy should start off with a bang, as the angered dragon heads for Lake Town.

Much like "An Unexpected Journey", the film is beautifully shot and dazzling to behold. Unfortunately, the lack of motion blur from the 48 fps process makes the action scenes look less realistic than they should, and there are several extremely poor composite shots that are visually jarring and break the suspension of disbelief. Additionally, Peter Jackson's fondness for visual outrageousness builds to a point where implausibility is no longer dismissible. While the action scenes are exciting and well staged, the gratuitously violent and completely bloodless battles become boring after a while.

The film is full of great performances, with Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, and Richard Armitage once again leading the pack. The most powerful and frightening scene in the film is seeing the corruption of Bilbo Baggins, as the Ring of Power twists its way into his soul. We also catch glimpses of Thorin's madness, which will later lead him and his men to their doom. The vast majority of the film doesn't come from the original book at all, and turns into a playground for Jackson's wild tangents on the subject matter. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) makes an extended cameo as a snotty wood elf, while a completely fabricated female elf named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) plays a crucial dramatic role in the affairs of elves, men, dwarves, and orcs. Her character is flat, cliché, and predictable to a fault, but it's nice to have at least ONE female character in the cast. Smaug is visually quite impressive and Cumberbatch gives an excellent performance, but the longer he's onscreen, the more ineffective he becomes. How a handful of dwarves could cause him so much trouble is inconceivable, and the dragon ultimately comes across as a bumbling idiot full of hot air. It's like he's swatting at flies and just can't seem to connect. Thankfully, the writing is more serious minded than the previous film and jettisons most of the unnecessary juvenile humor in exchange for more violence and increasingly ridiculous set pieces.

"The Desolation Of Smaug" is an enjoyable film set in a visually rich and amazing fantasy realm, but it's way too long and doesn't heed Gandalf's grave warning to "stay on the path." As a result, it gets lost on too many tangents and tries the viewer's patience and loyalty.