Unlike Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was almost universally praised, reactions towards his Hobbit movies have been mixed. The first film, An Unexpected Journey, received its share of average to negative reviews, with some critics finding the movie overlong, self-indulgent, and most damning of all, boring. And honestly, it’s hard not to agree with these views.
Whilst An Unexpected Journey had certain strong qualities – technical skill, a nice air of whimsy and some excellent sequences (Gollum’s riddles for examples) – not to mention goodwill generated by a geekish giddiness to be back in this world, it was hampered by its sprawling and misplaced length and long periods of narrative dead space. Most critics brought up the fact that adapting such a small, lightweight and child-friendly novel into a sprawling nine-hour saga was a misstep.
Even when judging the series on its own terms – this is Jackson’s Hobbit, big and overwrought and filled to the brim with Tolkien’s appendices and side-stories – it still remains difficult to see why this story was split into three 3-hour long movies. That said, The Desolation of Smaug is a better movie than An Unexpected Journey, and much more engaging throughout its long running time – though sadly it’s not without some of the same flaws.
The movie picks up immediately after the first ended and benefits from throwing the audience directly into the action. We don’t spend an hour in Bilbo’s front room this time. There are some great scenes in the first half which show how good Jackson can be when he loosens up a bit; the spider sequence is silly and icky and the barrel-chase, in its complete physics-defying insanity, is a lot of fun too. The climax, though over-blown and a long time coming, also contains great action moments with a pretty big dragon.
The downsides to all of these sequences is that the effects work varies dramatically – Smaug looks beautiful and feels real, but there are a few moments in this movie which look more like video games than cinema. Also, Jackson’s editing and camera shots can make the action incomprehensible at times. It can’t be denied however that for the most part, this is a technically well made movie – the sets and locations are of course stunning, and Middle Earth remains a convincing and fully realised world. The film is much more engaging than An Unexpected Journey and more fun to watch as a whole.
But the fact remains that The Hobbit as a novella was never suited to this kind of cinematic treatment, and there seems to be an odd disconnection between the original story, Jackson’s version of it, and the added in extras. You can see the seams everywhere. There’s a push throughout to make the movie feel more like Lord of the Rings, with a lot of darkness and a foreboding tone – ‘a great evil is coming’ etc. The problem is that the story as a whole is, and feels, much lighter than Rings and this kind of narrative pushing doesn’t convince.
It doesn’t help that there’s no sense of tension or danger in the movie. Whenever a character gets into trouble, Gandalf or Legolas or someone will swoop in and save the day, and it genuinely feels impossible that any of these characters are capable of dying. It just feels like a misstep to try and align The Hobbit with Lord of the Rings in terms of tone; they’re very different beasts.
It also doesn’t help that the added in scenes – mainly involving Gandalf and the Necromancer – don’t feel related to the main narrative and just come across as unnecessary padding. Why are we bothered about this villain rising when we know nothing is going to kick off for decades? Why, after already receiving the backstory of said villain in The Fellowship of the Ring, are we treated to this expansion-pack style exposition? In narrative terms there is nothing gained from any of these scenes, and the much-pushed element of epic evil doesn’t gel with the rest of the tale.
Even for those who haven’t read the book, it’s so easy to see what’s been added in from the appendices. The elves are fairly redundant too. Orlando Bloom returns as Legolas (looking far older than he did in the original trilogy) but is only there for fan-service and adds nothing to the plot. His fellow ‘she-elf’ Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) – a completely original invention on the part of Jackson – because hey we had to fill more screen-time somehow!- is likeable in the role, but she’s only here because there are no other women in the story. Sadly, all the writers have her engage in is a dull cross-species love triangle which is almost impossible to engage with emotionally, not matter how handsome Aidan Turner is.
The scenes which do exist from the novel have been completely overblown, which at times makes the movie something of an endurance test. Admittedly, this problem isn’t felt as badly as it is in the first movie, but there’s literally an hour of dead narrative in the middle of this movie. Small events from the novel are completely stretched out; from the action sequences, which the book barely focused upon, here pulled out to epic length.
Compare the climax with the same sequence in the book and see the difference. The scenes in Laketown, with all their politics, just feel like padding and the movie would lose nothing from cutting them. The orc chases don’t add tension and again, are repetitive, coming across as unnecessary. Yes, this is Jackson’s movie – a fairly weak adaptation in terms of mood and style, there’s not much Tolkien here – and Jackson wants this sprawling epic. And yes, the movie should be judged without the bias of the source material, but really, the biggest problem with these movies is that they shouldn’t have been three movies at all. Even two would have been a stretch – it’s just hard not to think how much better The Hobbit would have been as one lean movie.
The cast are of course excellent. Martin Freeman isn’t given a great deal to do, considering that this is his movie, but he does have good comic timing and is a likeable centre. You feel like the filmmakers could get more out of him though. Highlight of the movie is Freeman’s Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch as the monstrous Smaug. Smaug is a great character – arrogant and very smart, engaging Bilbo in twisting mindgames before giving over to pure fiery fury – the Smaug sequences the best in the movie, with a great epic sense of scale (he’s a big dragon), and Benedict’s performance (voice and motion capture) wonderfully brings the dragon to life. Smaug is the highlight of the film. He’s the best on screen dragon since the climax of Sleeping Beauty.
The Desolation of Smaug is a far better movie than An Unexpected Journey, but it’s a hard movie to judge. On the one hand, it’s technically well made, with nice atmosphere and impressive visuals and action scenes. Yet on the other hand, it’s not really a movie at all – it’s far too long, too unstructured, and lacks any sense of narrative or real plot. A lot of this is basically treading water waiting for the third movie, and, in what’s becoming a growing problem with middle-trilogy movies, there’s no resolution and the second story is unable to stand on it’s own – bring back the days of The Empire Strikes Back.
But really, the same problems which applied to An Unexpected Journey still apply here, and if you liked that film, you’ll love this one. This isn’t a bad movie as such, and if you go in with the attitude of big action and fun dragons, there’s enjoyment to be had. Fans will be in their element, but for everyone else, The Hobbit sequel is an overblown epic which will one day, make a good Sunday hangover movie. Hopefully when the third movie’s out someone will edit the three together and save everyone the time.