Give Martin Freeman an empty room and he'll give you comedy. The best parts of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — an admittedly mishandled movie in large — involved his subdued grimaces, his Chaplinian waddling, and the way he carried himself with equal parts neurosis and snark in every scene. If there is one primary misstep of An Unexpected Journey's terrifically improved sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, it is the spiritual absence of Bilbo Baggins.
Freeman's good-natured but disgruntled Hobbit takes a backseat to the Dwarf team in this chapter of Peter Jackon's three-part saga, distributing the heavy lifting among the front lines of the bearded mooks. Thankfully, we're not shafted with too much "Thorin's destiny" backstory, instead focusing on the trek forward, through far more interesting terrain than we got last time around. The Dwarves voyage through a trippy woodland that'll conjur fond memories of The Legend of Zelda's unnavigable forest levels and inside the borders of Lake-town, a man-occupied working class monarchy that is more vivid and living than any place we have seen yet in the series. And while Unexpected Journey's goblin caverns might have been cool to look at, none of the quests in Desolation feel nearly as close to a tangential detour. Every step the Dwarves take is one that beckons us closer to the central, increasingly engaging story.
Desolation is not entirely without its curiosities. While Gandalf's mission to meet the Necromancer serves to connect the Hobbit trilogy to the Lord of the Rings movies, the occasional cuts over to the wizard's pursuits are primarily distracting and just a bit dull. Although we're happy to welcome the Elf race back into our Middle-earth adventures, it's easy to imagine a version of this story that didn't involve side characters like Legolas and Kate... I mean, Tauriel... and still felt whole (perhaps even more cohesive). The latter's love affair with hot Dwarf Kili seems like a last minute addition to the canon, and one not built on anything beyond the cinematic rule that two sexually compatible attractive people should probably have something brewing alongside all the action.
But the most egregious of crimes committed by Desolation is, unquestionably, the shafting of Bilbo Baggins to secondary status. Yes, he proves himself a savior to his fellow travelers four times in the film, but long stretches of action go by without so much as a word from the wide-eyed burglar. When he finally takes center stage in his theatrical face-off with Smaug — an exercise in double-talk reminiscent of Oedipus outsmarting the Sphinx — the film picks up with a new, cool energy, with a chilling fun laced around the impending doom of their back-and-forth. We've been waiting since the first frames of Unexpected to see how the dragon material will pay off, and it does in spades... albeit in the final third of Desolation, but with equal parts gravitas and fun, to reunite us with our Tolkien passions once more.
Benedict Cumberbatch's dragon doesn't do much to subvert expectation — he's slithering, sadistic, vain, manipulative, and vaguely Londonian. But tradition feels good here. Smaug's half hour spent toying with the mousey Bilbo (who does get a chance to showcase his aptitude at small-scale physical comedy here) is terrific in every way.
Its Hobbit problem aside, Desolation proves itself worthy of Bilbo's past proclamation. "I'm going on an adventure!" more than pays off here, in the form of mystifying boat rides, edge-of-your-seat efforts in dragon slaying, and the most joyful action set piece we've seen in years. Twelve Dwarves, twelve barrels, and one roaring river amounts for enough fun to warrant your trip to the theater for this latest outing into Middle-earth.
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To those only vaguely familiar with The Lovely Bones Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel about a murdered teen who observes her family — and tracks her killer — from beyond Peter Jackson might seem like an odd choice to direct the film adaptation. Why would the visual effects maestro who orchestrated such grand spectacle in films like King Kong and the Lord of the Rings trilogy be attracted to Bones’ somber reflective subject matter wherein nary an orc or a goblin can be found?
Shortly after the film's opening moments Jackson’s definitive answer arrives in the form of the “in-between place ” a breathtaking limbo where our wide-eyed heroine 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) arrives after her life is cruelly cut short by a next-door neighbor and closet predator named ominously enough Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Susie’s experience of the afterlife as a sort of spiritual way-station featuring elements of both heaven and hell (but mostly heaven) is a veritable CGI playground for Jackson one in which he can employ all of the digital tools in his vast arsenal in the service of a powerful affecting story.
And what a gorgeous playground it is. As Susie journeys through her wondrous netherworld — sometimes alone sometimes accompanied by a perky young spirit guide named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) — Jackson serves up a succession of exquisitely rendered landscapes for her to explore from placid spring meadows to boundless Alpine slopes to lush green forests. Jackson knows all too well that the issue of life after death especially when considered in regards to those who left us too soon is fertile emotional ground. With the help of an irresistibly expressive Ronan he mines it shrewdly.
Back on Earth unfortunately The Lovely Bones takes the form of a poorly-constructed deeply unsatisfying police procedural. Frustrated by the authorities’ inability to find the killer Susie's anguished father (Mark Wahlberg) mounts an investigation of his own aided occasionally in Ghost-like fashion by his daughter’s unseen hand. Tension rises as the mystery unravels — Jackson having drawn us in with his shamelessly manipulative handiwork has us by the emotional short-hairs so much so that we’re willing to overlook the film’s gap-laden storyline redundant narration underdeveloped supporting characters and a generally underwhelming Wahlberg. We just want payback damnit.
But when The Lovely Bones’ moment of truth arrives Susie abruptly changes her mind effectively turning almost every preceding plot point into an infuriating red herring and depriving us of the emotional release Jackson so steadfastly prepared us for. What we’re left with ultimately is an experience akin to taking a shot of morphine and watching someone play the videogame Myst for two hours (a span that might very well be reduced to 45 minutes if the film’s copious slow-motion shots were all played at normal speed). And once the anodyne buzz wears off the comedown is agonizing.