It’s long – too long by a good hour. And the chroma key (green screen) moments still fly in the face of otherwise sterling production values. Why? Who knows. It deviates from the core story with lumpy stretches of exposition and wholly invents action scenes solely to provide popcorn-chewing moments late in the film. The Hobbit’s second instalment is not nearly perfect, or even as good as the first chapter (read our review here). But The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug succeeds through sheer love for JRR Tolkein’s universe. Again, director Peter Jackson and Weta have crafted something that no other team could quite pull off: a film that succeeds as a heartfelt fantasy blockbuster and a reasonably worthwhile mid-point in the contentiously drawn-out story arc.
Unlike The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) takes a back seat this time. Unlike the original tale, his perspective is somewhat lacking here, replaced by Gandalf (the incomparably watchable Ian McKellen)’s investigative side-quest (tied directly to The Lord of the Rings), as well as Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage)’s personal quest to restore his fallen dwarven homeland. Also thrown into the mix is a classic love triangle between lithe elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Peter-Jackson-invented she-elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and inexplicably delicate dwarf Kili.
It’s all very complicated – which we suppose is why we get three films instead of a more practical one or two; this is Peter Jackson fleshing out the core journey story and leaving his stamp on the series. Can you begrudge him this ego trip? There’s an uncomfortable air of George Lucas to the whole affair, frankly.
At the heart, of course, is Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug, the stupendous dragon of lore, resides on his sprawling expanse of ill-gotten gold. All other elements are merely struts supporting this core tale. That’s a problem when the audience doesn’t get Bilbo’s narrative hand to hold in this middle-chapter; we’re left trying to tie together multiple strands of storytelling, agendas, lore – and the all-important foreshadowing and linking to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.
Who is the core hero here? Who do we care about the most? Then there are the multitude of villains – murderous orcs, vengeful monsters, corrupt officials – there’s too much going on. In providing a wealth of content for Tolkein fans, Jackson’s cup overfloweth. That’s neither good nor bad – it’s just more than we need in one sitting.
Most of the pivotal novel moments are here – touched upon, rather than lingered within. In an effort to keep the tale moving, Jackson wastes no time with silly little things like building tension or noting the passage of the days in line with the original narrative. Annoyingly, characters breeze through imprisonment by spiders and elves, spend what seems like mere moments trekking up Smaug’s mountain and inside. The struggles that made The Lord of the Rings feel so grand and fraught with danger are barely bumps on the path through The Desolation of Smaug, thanks to a lack of adequate tension-building.
We suppose this goes some way towards explaining this film’s odd pacing; it never quite lands the right balance between action and exposition. It’s off-balance. Things improve immensely when the film settles into a far pace in the final act. Bandersnatch Cummerbund Bendledunk Camperdown Benedict Cumberbach finally makes his debut as the titular dragon – a mighty and imposing creation that absolutely does justice to Tolkein’s vision, while justifying the audience’s patience. You’ll love him.
As always, the effects are gorgeous; the 3D is an unnecessary frivolity – but it’s unobtrusive. By all reports, the high framerate (HFR) version has addressed the oversaturation and hyper-clarity of the first instalment too – though a 2D, standard framerate screening still seems like the ideal choice to our tastes.
As a middle chapter, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is fine but flawed; it won’t be taking home any Oscars – and true Tolkein devout will balk at some of the liberties taken with characters and set-pieces late in the film. However, as a link between chapters (and at times an all-too-literal link between The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit), Peter Jackson has again succeeded in producing entertaining high fantasy with enough integrity to make us hungry for the final film in 2014.
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