We’ll never really get over the stigma that comes with Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, even if we want to. This is the guy who tied the record for Oscars in a single night with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, so he’s obviously got a very high bar to clear. This is the guy who made Middle-earth real in our cinematic minds. This is the guy who managed to film an unfilmable story. So, how are we supposed to expect him to live up to that? There are a number of answers for this, ranging from optimistic to downright hostile, but mine is simple: we’re not. Where The Lord of the Rings was a fantasy adventure wrapped in a world-in-the-balance epic, The Hobbit is adventure in its purest form. Jackson’s embracing that, and though he’s trying too hard to give his latest cinematic saga weight, we can still glean a lot of fun from the Hobbit franchise even without the connections to its big brother, and the latest installment, The Desolation of Smaug, definitely proves that.
After escaping a horde of orcs at the end of the last film, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and their company have a host of new challenges to face. They still have to find their way across a treacherous landscape with plenty of orcs on their trail. They also have to navigate the deadly, spider-filled forest of Mirkwood, where the Elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace) rules amid a number of outside dangers. They still have to make their way through the village of Laketown. They still have to climb the desperate heights of The Lonely Mountain of Erebor, and they still have to find their way through a number of dangerous situations before they encounter what might be the deadliest obstacle of them all: the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), who may be the only thing that stands between the dwarves and the rule of Erebor.
Of course, there are plenty of other distractions along the way, including the presence of the elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and new character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), the bowman called Bard (Luke Evans), the master of Laketown (Stephen Fry), and more, and all the while Gandalf continues his own side-quest to discover what exactly is going on in the dark fortress of Dol Guldur,where the orcs are plotting an invasion, and the evil Necromancer could be more than he seems.
Needless to say, it’s a big movie, but Jackson is a big movie director, and for the most part he succeeds here. His tracking of the adventures of the dwarf company is, more often than not, absolutely first-rate. Never once along this journey has he lost his touch for the beauty of Middle-earth, and that trend continues here, but he’s also still got a definite knack for action, in its purest, most disbelief-suspending form, and this flick proves that, though in an imperfect way. If you’re a major fan of The Lord of the Rings, you might consider some of the action in this film (and its predecessor) to be contrived and a bit physics-defying, often to a somewhat ludicrous level, but in many ways that’s kind of the point. Dwarves are hearty, so they do unnaturally hearty things and survive things simple humans wouldn’t (watch as they float down a rapid-filled river in a group of empty barrels for the purest evidence of this). Likewise, elves are graceful, and so they’re able to do graceful things that humans wouldn’t be able to achieve, though Legolas’ action beats often border on self parody. Jackson seems to relish having these creatures at his disposal, giving Legolas in particular plenty of strong, if silly, action beats, and giving the dwarves plenty of seemingly insurmountable obstacles to overcome with simple toughness. The result is a number of dazzling action setpeices that will definitely hold your attention, even if they do often venture into the realm of silliness.
Nor surprisingly, the film stumbles in the same ways its predecessor did: with clunky pacing and an apparent lack of measured, ruthlessly efficient storytelling. Scenes linger for longer than they should, particularly where Tauriel and Smaug are concerned. Action beats come between often tiresome monologues and dialogues, some of which overtly explain so much of the plot that they border on ridiculous. I still respect Jackson’s choice to fill this trilogy with prequel information that sets up the rise of Sauron for The Lord of the Rings, but he has to understand that, because we already know the ending of that particular trilogy, the stakes aren’t very high here. Sadly, though, he doesn’t seem to get that, and so large chunks of the film feel tortured, overwrought and even unnecessary.
And yet, even with those strained moments, Desolation of Smaug manages to be a better film than its predecessor, packed with rousing action, masterful visuals and plenty of amusing character moments (watch Freeman for some exceptional comic timing). It’s no The Two Towers, but it’s definitely damn fun to watch.