MRR Review: "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"

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MRR Review: "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"

Rating: PG-13 (extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images)

Length: 161 minutes

Release Date: December 13, 2013

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Genre: Adventure / Drama / Fantasy

The live-action film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's legendary work "The Hobbit" has had a rough journey to the screen. After the success of the "Lord of the Rings" films, it originally fell to Guillermo del Toro to put the prequel on the big screen, but that project fell through, and Middle-earth guru Peter Jackson once more took up the banner. He quickly decided to make a few alterations to the story to make it more screen friendly, however, and "The Hobbit" ballooned to two films and eventually three before he was finished. "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is the second film in the trilogy, picking up where 2012's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" left off.

The story picks up with the company having just survived the assault of Azog and the Orcs, flown to safety by the eagles. Gandalf gives the party instructions to seek out assistance from a friendly shape-shifter before setting out to rally the White Council to deal with the Necromancer. The dwarves and Bilbo encounter terrifying spiders in the Mirkwood before falling into the hands of the Wood Elves, eventually escaping to Lake-town and gathering supplies for their final journey to the Lonely Mountain, where the great dragon Smaug awaits.

The movie reunites the same fantastic cast from the first film, with Richard Armitage leading the dwarves as Thorin Oakenshield, Ian McKellen as brilliant as ever as Gandalf the Grey, and Martin Freeman providing his British-everyman charm as the hero of the piece, Bilbo Baggins. Sylvester McCoy reprises his role as Radagast the Brown, and Lee Pace reappears as Thranduil, the Elven king who abandoned Thorin's father in his time of need.

"The Desolation of Smaug" adds several new faces to the mix as well. Mikael Persbrandt is Beorn the skin-changer, a werebear who aids the company in the Mirkwood. The inimitable Stephen Fry cameos as the Master of Laketown, and Luke Evans is Bard the Bowman, the skilled archer descended from the last king of Dale. In addition, Martin Freeman reunites with his "Sherlock" costar Benedict Cumberbatch, who voices (and performs as, via motion capture) the terrible dragon Smaug, the ruler of the Lonely Mountain. In addition, Cumberbatch does double villainous duty as the Necromancer, the nemesis of the White Council in Dol Guldur. Orlando Bloom reprises his role as Legolas from the first trilogy, and Evangeline Lilly is the elf Tauriel, a new addition to the story created for this trilogy.

Anyone who has ever seen a Peter Jackson Middle-earth film should know what to expect. The vistas are amazing and will no doubt add a trip to New Zealand to countless bucket lists yet again. The action is fierce and fast, with wild escapes, battles against fearsome creatures, and hints at the epic set pieces to come in the final film. Even through layers of prosthetic makeup, the actors manage to imbue their dwarf characters with personality, helping audiences relate to the somewhat unwieldy main cast.

The effects in this film are top notch, with the spiders of Mirkwood and the eventual full reveal of the great dragon Smaug shining as the high points of the production. Notably, Jackson used motion-capture technology to allow Benedict Cumberbatch to provide some of the dragon's movements, resulting in a rather humorous video released to the public of the "Sherlock" star contorting and menacing an unseen Hobbit. On film, however, the resulting effect is one of a living, breathing titan and a fearsome foe for such a small group of heroes.

The film suffers somewhat in the pacing department, since Jackson has alternately tried to compress and expand the story to meet his two- or three-film plan. The early sequences seem rushed and disjointed in places, but any complaints fall away once the company reaches the breathtaking Lonely Mountain. In addition, the creation of Tauriel and her story of seeking her own path seems a bit out of place attached to the original story, but it adds an emotional center that helps carry the film along to its conclusion.

In the end, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" corrects some of the faults of the first film in the trilogy, dragging audiences directly into the action and providing a much more epic feel to the proceedings. Tolkien lovers will be satisfied with the depiction of this beloved tale, as Jackson's imagination is as dead on as always in envisioning the characters and sweeping vistas of Middle-earth. While purists may again take issue with a few liberties taken here and there, the overall result is one of the best adaptations of the original work fans could want.

Rating: 4 out of 5