[This will be an abbreviated review, with some heavy spoilerific and rambling thoughts to come later.]
The decision to turn The Hobbit into a trilogy of films was something I had supported before the release of An Unexpected Journey, and indeed I had no reason to change my mind when it turned out to be a well-paced, good natured and generally energetic romp. However, Desolation of Smaug is the first in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations where I found myself growing genuinely bored and weary of the proceedings. It’s worryingly reminiscent of his indulgent King Kong, in its dull, extended action sequences and excessive reliance on special effects. The ‘Van Helsing’ syndrome strikes again: there’s very little downtime, no moment for characters to take stock and let the audience ponder. Set piece after set piece come thick and fast, but with very little sense of genuine peril for our heroes as well as a curious lack of Middle-Earth mythologising, Desolation of Smaug is something of a disappointment.
Picking up where Journey left off, Desolation of Smaug sees Bilbo and the not-so-merry band of dwarves led by the surly Thorin Oakenshield trying to outrun the pack of orcs as they seek to reach Erebor. Meanwhile, Gandalf branches out on his own to investigate the nefarious goings-on at the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur, where the supposed ‘necromancer’ is dwelling. The movie rushes through its apportioned moments from the source material in an unseemly hurry. Before the first half is over, we have hurtled past Beorn, the Mirkwood spiders, the wood elves of Thranduil and the famous barrel ride scene. There’s a lot of stuff that is front-loaded here, which at first appears to give lie to claims that Jackson has stretched Tolkien’s book too thin. The second half, however, is where things become substantially less enjoyable. As the trailers implied, Bilbo encounters the dragon Smaug in the Lonely Mountain, and (without wishing to spoil things too much) the novel’s famed meeting between Middle-Earth’s smallest sentient being and its biggest is extensively, tenuously reworked for the screen. Smaug is a magnificently realised creation, a digital dragon for the ages and voiced with charm and menace in equal parts by Benedict Cumberbatch. But Smaug also brings out the worst kind of excess in Jackson, as he drags out the dragon’s scenes and fills them with too many implausibilities, to the point where the ‘Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities’ is completely demystified for the audience. In contrast, the film struggles to find enough screen time to the other, non-firebreathing characters. The dwarves take a backseat to the elves this time, and while they add some welcome athleticism to the fight scenes and Orlando Bloom is a surprisingly steady presence as the returning Legolas (or the debuting Legolas, considering the timeline), there’s also a wildly saccharine and uninvolving romance between the dwarf Kili and the female elf Tauriel (a new character not in the book). The movie does better with Bard, long considered a hurried and weak plot device for the novel, who is treated with more substance than Tolkien was willing to give him. Gandalf’s sojourn in Dol Goldur, however, takes him off-screen for far too long, and the little time he does show is a reminder of how crucial he is to maintaining the dramatic impetus of Jackson’s saga. Desolation thus makes for an uneven experience: a lean, rushed first half followed by a bloated second, with new characters continually being introduced throughout the runtime. There’s a lot of things to see, but not much to savour.
I plan to see this again in HFR, and hopefully return with a set of more detailed thoughts.