Easily the weakest of Peter Jackson’s cinematic epics set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth fantasy realm, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug often feels leaden and belabored, as it lacks any of the dramatic intensity and momentum of its Lord of the Rings predecessors. Last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey benefited from a sense of nostalgia borne from it being brought to the screen a decade removed from the release of Jackson’s beloved original Tolkien-inspired trilogy. The fun of just returning to the land of hobbits, dwarves, wizards, elves, orcs, and men buoyed what was otherwise a relatively tepid adventure yarn.
But this latest chapter has no such advantage, and even the best efforts of LoTR veteran cast members Sir Ian McKellen and Orlando Bloom nor new cast standouts Benedict Cumberbatch and Ken Stott cannot save The Desolation of Smaug from feeling like the wealth of Jackson’s creative vision that has powered this saga might be finally running low.
When we last left young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (McKellen) and the company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), they had survived the dangers of the Misty Mountains and an attack by Thorin’s orc nemesis, Azog the Defiler, and resolved to continue on their journey to the Lonely Mountain and the lost dwarven kingdom of Erebor. During those adventures and his own frightening encounter with the creature Gollum, Bilbo found the courage to stay with Thorin and company and help them with their quest, and also literally found another item of seemingly little import, a precious, magical ring with which Bilbo could disappear from the sight of almost anyone. He keeps his possession of the ring a secret — after all, why should anyone else know about it? He found it. It was his, was it not? His own.
See what I did there? If not, then go back and re-watch the first trilogy. See you back in this space in a week or so.
Once past the Misty Mountains, Thorin and company are faced with new challenges as they first pass through Mirkwood, the woodland realm ruled by Thranduil, King of the Woodland Elves and father of Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reprising his role from the original trilogy). The forest has come under the spell of dark magic and become home to many dangers, the least of which are the Elves, and the group is forced to face those dangers alone, as Gandalf leaves them at the forest to further investigate the evil growing in the supposedly-abandoned fortress of Dol Goldur, and the rumors surrounding “The Necromancer” and a growing army of orcs and goblins.
Of course, the perils doesn’t end there: should they survive the dangers of Mirkwood, they’ll have to find a way across Long Lake at the southern foot of the Lonely Mountain, find the hidden door to Erebor described in Thorin’s map, and deal with Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), the last of Middle-Earth’s great dragons, who slumbers amidst all of Erebor’s vast treasures just waiting for someone to try to take so much as a single gold coin from the trove. There’s also the people living in the wooden village of Lake-Town on the Long Lake, the mysterious Bard the Boatman (Luke Evans) among them, some of whom aren’t all that eager to see the dwarves enter the mountain and anger Smaug, as the town would surely be its next target.
Sound like a lot to juggle? It is, and that’s just the broad strokes. But is it enough to justify 162 minutes? Well, that just depends.
In many ways, this entry in The Hobbit saga faces similar challenges to those faced by the second entry in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series, The Two Towers (2002). Both films are tasked with getting the audience caught up with where all the characters are and what’s happened since the last time we saw them, and thus both feel scattered in their first 30-45 minutes, The Desolation of Smaug much more so. Also, both films are denied the true narrative momentum that develops as the true climax of the story approaches. They function as the middle of the story, and though they may have some internal resolution to sub-plots and character development, they are unable to deliver the big climax and resolution that audiences always want when they’re enjoying a good story. In both cases, Jackson has to cut things short and save the true denouement and conclusion for the final chapter.
But The Two Towers had the advantage of its source material being a fully-realized novel of its own, and thus it did have a true beginning, middle, and end which the film could emulate, and thus while it is considered the least satisfying of the original trilogy, that’s somewhat akin to saying that it’s the least delicious item on the menu of a five-star restaurant. It still feels like a complete film, and that’s where the similarities between it and The Desolation of Smaug end.
As any Tolkien devotee will remind you, The Hobbit was one, singular work that was not constructed with nearly the same narrative complexity that the subsequent Lord of the Rings trilogy was. Whereas The Two Towers is a middle volume in a series, The Desolation of Smaug is merely the middle chapters of the story, supplemented heavily by Jackson, his wife Fran Walsh, and their frequent collaborator Philipa Boyens’ adaptations of side stories and ancillary material written by Tolkien long after the publication of The Hobbit in 1937.
What does that all mean? It means that in addition to The Desolation of Smaug feeling like it doesn’t have a true beginning or end, because it is the middle chapters of the story, a great deal of it also feels like filler. Beautifully conceptualized and shot filler, but filler, nonetheless.
It doesn’t help that the new major cast additions in this entry don’t truly stand out or feel as though they’ll be memorable in any way when all is said and done. If anything, they feel like pale shadows of far more memorable characters in the saga: Luke Evan’s Bard, all brooding and mysterious with a haunted past, and Evangeline Lilly’s courageous and forthright she-elf Tauriel echo Viggo Mortensen and Liv Tyler, respectively as Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
The main cast are all solid in picking up where they left off the last time around — Ken Stott as the wise counselor Balin is particularly charming and memorable in this entry — but this time they all feel like they’re just along for the ride. The first film, at least, had Martin Freeman’s depiction of Bilbo’s reluctance to be on the journey and his outright fear as well as his wonder as he ventures away from The Shire and out into Middle Earth as emotions the audience could connect to and want to see explored. At this point in the story, Bilbo is almost too steady, although there is the matter of that little precious trinket he keeps hidden in his pocket possibly influencing his behavior.
The one true bright spot in all this fluff and exposition is the long-awaited reveal of Smaug himself, as voiced brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness). The great dragon’s eyes and leering mouth simply bring to life malice, and Cumberbatch effectively conveys Smaug’s arrogance, fiendish intelligence, vanity, paranoia, hatred, and greed in a way that entrances just as much as it terrifies. In this respect, the film does not disappoint, as the sequences between Bilbo and Smaug, surrounded by all of Erebor’s glittering treasures, are riveting and intense. It’s what audience really did come to see, and Jackson does deliver the goods.
Hopefully, when the final chapter of this saga hits screens next Christmas, he’ll deliver on the potential set up by all the rest of what happened in this film, and make all that other filler feel far more worthwhile.
Score: 3 out of 5
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, and Orlando Bloom. Directed by Peter Jackson.
Running Time: 162 minutes
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.