From the moment it was announced that Peter Jackson’s film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit would be made into a trilogy, there was a good degree of skepticism over how successfully such a small tale could be expanded to take up a solid eight hours (over the course of three years). Even though the “cinematic mitosis” approach to filmmaking, begun with the 2003 release of Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions, has become pretty much standard operating procedure for any studio wishing to juice an extra movie’s worth of profit from the source material, Jackson and company were going for a three for one. Whether one considered this approach foolish, audacious or avaricious, it was undeniably ambitious. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey suggested the template Jackson would adopt: Open with a flashback (or two), add whole cloth plenty of “Gandalf’s Adventures in Dol Goldur,” and then sttrreeettcch out the action sequences. These sequences may have in turn stretched viewer credulity, but it also resulted in a film that’s earned more than $1 billion in world box office. (Forget “Might makes right.” In Hollywood, “Profitable equals good.”)
Despite its success, the immense charm of Tolkien’s original tale had already mostly sloughed off by the end of the first film. (In hindsight, that process was well underway not long after the party left Bag End.) In The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, whatever flecks remained are scoured off by artificially sustained tension, a plot that’s forgotten who the main character is, and an inter-racial romance that’s obviously an investment in making the Battle of the Five Armies more dramatic. (Oh, and don’t worry, your credulity won’t escape unstrained, either, thanks to a major change—by far the most profound in either of the two films thus far—to one of the most important encounters in the book.) In place of the charm, Jackson, Walsh and Boyens have brought non-stop, mostly elf-on-orc action—if you’ve ever wished there was a YouTube tutorial made by elves and entitled: “101 Ways to Lithely Kill Your Foes,” you’re in luck.
Desolation picks up where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey left off: Our band of heroes, having been rescued from the dreaded Flaming Domino Trees via Giant Eagle Taxis, now continues its journey toward lost Erebor. Still pursued by Azok the Defiler and his unending supply of homicidally inclined orcs, and probably at least occasionally wondering why the eagles couldn’t just have flown them on over to the Lonely Mountain, Team Dwarf +1 must make its way past shapechangers and the murkiest of woods, a forest teeming with life both hostile (giant spiders!) and dickish (wood elves!). From there, Laketown, Erebor and the big S himself itself are just a (very long) flume zoom ride, a Stephen Colbert cameo and a hidden keyhole away!
For those able to let go of any hope that Desolation will retain any of the more subtle aspects of Tolkien’s little tale—and for those with no prior allegiance or expectation to begin with—there’s plenty to enjoy in this latest journey to Middle Earth. Much like Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum in the first film, the party’s “meet-ick” with the giant spiders is among those moments most faithful to the book. The entrance of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) to the story is followed by a stream of mini-set action pieces that, for the most part, each succeed in impressing viewers with their lethal choreography. (Thankfully, Desolation shows a tad more restraint in the Stooge-ification of the dwarves.)
The mostly parallel story thread in which Gandalf conducts the world’s most dangerous background check on the Necromancer (with predictable results) does little beyond providing neat location shots and a cliffhanger that makes sense only if you’re a James Bond villain.
Oh, and there’s romance as only Hollywood can do it, which mean a few prolonged glances and half-answered smiles are all it takes for Tauriel to bond with one of the stubby folk. (Surprise! He’s the one who was left most conspicuously “non-dwarf” in appearance and height—I suppose because how else could one believe a pretty elf lady would fall for a ruddy, hairy dwarf? Wait, can a director and writers be racist toward imaginary races?)
Yet, all the dwarf scowling, orc growling and elf stylin’ are mere prelude. No, it’s the full, Cumberbatch-voiced reveal of Smaug for which viewers await, and when the moment finally arrives, it’s undeniably impressive. He’s big. He’s menacing. He’s … did I mention he’s big? But he’s also part of one of the biggest outright deviations in the transition from page to screen. This departure results in a great deal more screen time for Smaug the Golden, but it’s hard to fully enjoy even as it grants us an exhilarating closer look at one of fantasy’s most iconic dragons, exuberantly realized. The expanded scene also represents an unwelcome return to the video game antics, shaky logic and increasingly hard-to-believe survival rate of the dwarves in the goblin mines during the first film.
With so much time allotted to new faces and separate plot strands, the journey of Bilbo Baggins seems strangely neglected. Yet it’s not really that—Bilbo still plays a key role, freeing the dwarves from the spiders and the wood elves, and proving his worth time and time again. It’s just that, with most if not all of the added material focused on other characters and events—and with one of the key “Bilbo, solo” moments extended and diffused by the addition of others—Tolkien’s titular hobbit fades a bit from a narrative.
For this reason and others, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is even more of a mixed bag than its predecessor. That’s not always to its detriment—Tolkien agnostics who just come for fantasy-fueled action will find all they wish for and more. Still, those hoping for a definitive film version of a beloved classic may just have to accept this film as the second piece of evidence (with one more to come) that suggests that Jackson, Walsh and Boyens are much more adept at condensing an overlong epic than they are at expanding a fairy tale that’s just the right size.
Writer: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro; J. R. R. Tolkien (novel)
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom
Release Date: Dec. 13, 2013