What a difference a dragon makes. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug may belabor the pronunciation of Benedict Cumberbatch’s name, but damned if it isn’t worth it to finally see him. Bilbo and company are, it turns out, after a very specific treasure inside the lonely mountain. The sparkly Arkenstone will give Thorin the power to unite all the dwarves and take back his homeland.
All that needs to happen is for the company to get past the pack of orcs chasing them, the Spiders that want to eat them, the Elves that want to imprison and/or kiss them, the Lake men that want to seize their treasure, and the, you know, giant wyrm that wants to roast them. The film begins in flashback to Thorin’s first meeting with Gandalf and ends very much in the middle of events. The unintended consequences of this cliffhanger should make the third film fun, but it also turns Desolation into a three-hour-long film serial. The movie is conspicuously better at some parts and repetitive overall.
Visually, and in terms of its signature set-pieces, Desolation of Smaug is a definite upgrade from its predecessor. And what was good about the first film remains consistent here. Martin Freeman is Bilbo Baggins, able to distinguish between being flustered, nervous, and ill-at-ease with astonishing nuance. The props and production design balances fourteen main characters, three distinct cultures, and several odd asides of narrative with authority. Middle Earth looks like Middle Earth, even in 48fps, where the close-ups look slightly more plastic. And for a film that’s essentially just a group of small, unkempt people reaching a mountain, the appearance of a real antagonist works wonders for the final act, at least when Jackson is patient enough to let the story play out without cutting away to something else. Smaug is arguably the prime dragon of fantasy literature. He has no filmic equal.
There’s several other sequences that are very impressive, in their development, inventiveness, and excitement. The sequence with the Spiders of Mirkwood is Jackson at his horror roots – and features some practical effects work, which makes a huge difference. It’s perhaps the one place where The Hobbit bests its LOTR equivalent. There’s also the gang’s escape-by-river from Mirkwood, a sequence of dizzying choreography and glorious absurdity, each stunt more ridiculous than the last. It was the only place my theater burst into applause.
Gratuitous push-ins on the ring and an extended killing spree for our favorite Mirkwood prince were pretty much a given going in. Peter Jackson doesn’t have a great filter for fan-service. But by all the hairy feet in Hobbiton, did anyone think they’d have to think about, leave alone type the words, inter-species romance? In fairness to Evangeline Lilly, she is quite the elf, absolutely hitting that mixture of fey majesty, badassery, and a pert sense of humor. Given the script she was handed, she sells Tauriel as a clever captain who questions the reclusive motives of her lord. Lee Pace, too, as the Elfking Thranduil, brings an unsettling aura and very distinctive physicality to role that essentially is just him giving orders like a dick. But side-eying the hot dwarf? Damn, y’all.
“Given the script,” is a good way to approach all of Desolation‘s faults. It’s a top-heavy movie with a odd lust for physical comedy and an unwillingness to relegate any plot, however small, to the side. In the book, Gandalf leaves the dwarves in Mirkwood to go do…wizard stuff. Like wizards do. The mystery works for the character and doesn’t detract the focus from Bilbo’s humble daring and pluck. Not so here, as we’re treated to Gandalf storming the fortress of Dol Guldur – if you don’t already know what that means you’ll really have a tough time following what happens there. Like Lilly, McKellan does his damnedest with a script that wants to include much of the portentous tenor of the original trilogy. There’s a battle that recalls his fight against the Balrog in Fellowship, but with light and shadow visuals that are even more refined, looking like smoke under glass.
This entire storyline, though it will likely facilitate the climax of the third film, is entirely unnecessary to the quest. Our focus keeps getting drawn away, into the appendices and apocrypha, and we’re left with a film whose center – even anchored by a perfect heartfelt Martin Freeman – cannot hold. What’s Steven Fry doing in the lake-town? Why is there a Grima Wormtongue copycat? What’s up with Thorin and his sudden lust for jewelz? Jackson’s drawn the well of the original trilogy dry with callbacks, some done with such seeming self-consciousness it recalls the mugging of Star Wars prequels. No one asked for CGI wookies or another Morgul weapon subplot involving athelas – even the eighth of the general audience who remember what ‘Morgul’ means.
Its highs are far higher and its lows are as low as a fistful of kingsfoil in a pigsty. At some point, someone is going to take all three installments of this prequel trilogy and do a single-film cut, in which the spiders of Mirkwood, the barrel escape sequence, and the appearance of the vain, hypnotic, and awe-inspiring Cumberdrake will make for a cracker-jack second act. It’s just unfortunate that Peter Jackson didn’t make that movie. He’s so good at Middle Earth.
Take a Drink: whenever Peter Jackson cuts away from the action scene that’s actually interesting, dammit.
Take a Drink: whenever characters speak in a language that is not English.
Take a Drink: whenever Gandalf makes a grave pronouncement.
Take a Drink: whenever an elf decapitates something.
Do a Shot: for that LOTR/Enter The Void crossover moment when the Necromancer reveals himself to Gandalf.
Do Another Shot: when Bilbo takes the ring off at the worst possible time WHY WOULD YOU RUIN IT, JACKSON?!
Finish Your Drink: when Smaug gets a new coat.