Some killer, lots of filler
Director: Peter Jackson; Writers: Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro (screenplay), J.R.R. Tolkein (novel); Starring: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellan, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Aidan Turner, Benedict Cumberbatch; Running time: 161 minutes; Certification: 12A
There have been inklings leading up to the release of The Desolation Of Smaug that it got right what An Unexpected Journey got wrong. I, for one, don’t subscribe to the idea that the first Hobbit film isn’t as good as the first LOTR film, therefore it’s rubbish. Of course The Fellowship Of The Ring is the better film – it’s better than many – but that hardly means An Unexpected Journey doesn’t have its share of merits. Jackson judged the lighter, adventurous tone of the book perfectly, giving us more of a comedic ride than a dark trek, while all the while assuring us that it’s leading somewhere special. People seem to forget that The Hobbit was written by Tolkein as a children’s novel before he created The Lord Of The Rings, so I can’t understand why the film’s interpretation of that is something to be looked down on. Regardless, the question remains: is The Desolation Of Smaug really a much better film than An Unexpected Journey? In some ways, absolutely; in others, depressingly no.
This is really a film of two halves that radically differ in quality. We open shortly after where we left off in An Unexpected Journey (save for a small flashback sequence), with the Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves high-tailing it away from Azog and his orc minions on their way to the Lonely Mountain. While there’s a certain pace and energy in the opening minutes (and, indeed, the rest of the film) that really thrusts us aggressively back into the story, as if there had been no break, that’s about as good as it gets for quite some time. During the first hour or so, where it’s pretty much non-stop action, creeping doubts begin to filter in about the direction this trilogy is taking. Everything is just so sloppy and rushed and all over the place. They’ve already split a relatively short book into three movies, nearly three hours a piece, yet Desolation absolutely rockets through the chapters as if it’s just bored and wants to get to Smaug.
Just forty minutes in we’ve covered so much ground (literally) that we’re left thinking, “Well what on Middle Earth are they going to do for the next two hours?”. The answer is, of course, cram it with lots of filler. Legolas and Tauriel coming into the fray takes up a hefty portion of the running time, and while it is fun to have Legolas back and Evangeline Lilly is just nice to look at, their relationship and motives, topped off with Tauriel’s irritating quasi-love subplot, doesn’t lead to much and is ultimately unnecessary. Why the decision was made to strip down the important moments in the novel to focus on filler from the appendixes is anyone’s guess.
Furthermore, and sadly, Beorn barely gets the time of day, with the company rushing in and out of his abode in a matter of minutes without a second glance. But even more problematically, the spiders of Mirkwood are a mere passing hitch on their journey. It doesn’t do nearly enough justice to what is such a fantastically perilous and immersive chapter in the book, with no real sense of struggle or danger, or the overwhelming darkness that burdens them so heavily. The whole section is completely rushed through, in a matter of minutes, so when Bilbo pops his head up above the trees – a moment so profound in the book – it doesn’t really mean much. Sure the wind and sun probably feels nice, but it’s not like he’s been trudging through complete darkness for days on end. At least that’s not what we’ve been led to believe.
There’s a moment in the second act, shortly after a certain batch of barrels drop, where the film makes a sudden U-turn and seems to remember what’s actually important. While there are still problems come the finale, there’s clearly more care and attention shown when proceedings get to Laketown and the Lonely Mountain, which leads to the conclusion that perhaps it really is because Jackson was more interested in getting to Smaug and ultimately the third film. Smaug, for that matter, is perfectly voiced by the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch, and looks amazing thanks to more incredible work from the Middle Earth gurus at Weta. He and Bilbo sharing dialogue, like riddles in the dark with Gollum, is searingly good and easily the standout scene of the film, but the whole third act in general is well handled. To be fair, that’s probably more important than my personal issues with the translation from page to screen of Mirkwood and Beorn’s house, what with it pertaining to be more important to the overall story.
While I’ll always be intrigued by the ‘what could have been’ of Guillermo Del Toro directing The Hobbit (he remains a co-writer), Peter Jackson remains confident in the world he’s brought to life time and time again, filling almost every scene with a jump or tumble of some kind, and turning every shot into a fluid, wide, panoramic sweep. Despite any problems the film may have, he still shows real love and respect for Tolkein’s work, and there’s a sense that he really doesn’t care about the comparisons to The Lord Of The Rings. While he’s trying to make these films on the same scale, he’s not trying to make the same films, and there’s something respectable about that.
To say The Desolation Of Smaug isn’t a slight disappointment would be to tell a lie. Like its predecessor, it remains a bit too baggy and over-reliant on not always great CGI, and its failure to successfully dramatize some of the best moments from the novel leaves a distinctly dissatisfying hole, but where it fails in these areas, it partially makes up for in its breathtaking pace, some really exciting second and third act set-pieces, and a certain Sherlock duo – not to mention that exhilarating, cliffhanger ending that leaves us wanting more, even if we know the outcome. If nothing else, this reviewer could happily just sit and watch Middle Earth for hours on end.