I like The Desolation of Smaug. I really, really do. But it’s also the first Peter Jackson Middle-Earth flick I don’t unequivocally love. Whereas I was happy to stand with the tiny minority who found An Unexpected Journey to be roughly on par with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, this time around I must concede there are legitimate gripes to be had in how the director has chosen to adapt The Hobbit for the big screen.
There has been a lot of talk about how this film suffers from moving the focus away from Bilbo (Martin Freeman), making him a background character in what’s supposed to be his story. That’s not quite Desolation‘s central problem, though it does brush up against it. The real issue is that the movie offers no emotional hook or narrative through-line as strong as Bilbo’s arc in Unexpected Journey. That film was powered by Bilbo discovering the huge well of courage hidden within him, as well as the dwarves’ eventual acceptance of him as an equal member of their party. It was stirring stuff, and you even get a reminder of it early in Smaug when Bilbo is looking for some trust and Thorin, the dwarf leader who was the most doubting last time around, is first to give it.
You could almost chalk this up to “middle film of a trilogy” syndrome, except that Jackson and his co-writers had no problems embedding strong emotional hooks in The Two Towers, including the freeing of Théoden from Saruman’s control, Gollum’s inner-turmoil over whether to serve Frodo or betray him, and the tender but unrequited relationship between Éowyn and Aragorn. Of course, all of those things came straight from Tolkien, and perhaps the fact that Jackson had nothing equal to include here can be taken as proof that stretching The Hobbit out to three films was indeed a misguided plan.
Jackson largely tries to fill the hole by bringing back Legolas and matching him up with a female elfin warrior named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). He jumps around killing orcs like he’s in a videogame with the cheats turned on. She pines after Kili (i.e. the hawt dwarf) and wonders why the elves of Mirkwood won’t do more to help out the world at large. That latter bit works as a bit of foreshadowing for the third movie, but in no way do these two justify the screen time they’re allotted here. This is the first Jackson/Tolkien flick that feels needlessly stuffed with inconsequential filler, and Legolas and Tauriel account for a large portion of that.
I’ve heard complaints about the CG being overused, but I found it mostly impressive, especially when it comes to Smaug himself, the giant dragon that dominates the film’s second half. Credit not only to Benedict Cumberbatch, who provides the creature’s booming voice, but also to WETA for such amazing design and FX work. It’s an awe-inspiring sight to see the embers forming inside the great beast’s belly as Smaug prepares to unleash a torrent of fire on his breath. The one place Jackson and his team do go a bit overboard is with the dwarves-in-a-barrel sequence, though, as with Unexpected Journey‘s goblin battle, the action beats are enough fun that I’ll give it a pass.
For a while, the film just stacks action sequences rather than tell a fluid story, but Smaug eventually finds its groove when the company reaches Lake-town, a downtrodden harbor community that feels completely new and unique to the Jackson/Tolkien cinematic universe. Rows and rows of wooden shacks are built right out on top of the water, with just enough space between them for canoes and small boats to move back and forth. It’s an effective fantasy setting, and the new characters introduced there, especially Luke Evans’s Bard, help the movie regain its dramatic focus.
Ultimately, despite the excess padding and some stumbles with the narrative, there’s much to love about The Desolation of Smaug. The movie is gorgeous. The production design and costumes and all those things that whisk you immediately back to Middle Earth are as impressive as ever. Howard Shore’s score is sweeping and majestic. (Although it does bother me a bit that the Misty Mountains theme, An Unexpected Journey‘s catchiest leitmotif, isn’t used at all here. It’s an awfully strange omission considering it was basically the dwarven theme song last time out.) It’s no surprise that the cast is delightful, from Freeman and Ian McKellen down to Lee Pace and Stephen Fry, both of whom eagerly chew all the scenery they’re given.
So if Jackson was to turn me against this prequel trilogy, he’d have to do a lot worse than this. Smaug may not feel as polished or inspired as its predecessors, but it’s a spirited and rousing fantasy film all the same.