Perhaps I’m too harsh on the series. After all, after the immense success of his original trilogy, Peter Jackson was only setting himself up for disappointment with the much awaited prequel. Much of my compliments and criticisms of The Desolation of Smaug are so similar to that of An Unexpected Journey, I could just as easily copy and paste most of my original thoughts verbatim. However, for what it’s worth, Smaug does represent a marked, albeit still problematic, improvement over its earlier sibling.
When last we left Bilbo and the gang, they were on their way to the lonely mountain of Erebor, seeking to reclaim their kingdom, and their riches, from the massive and destructive Smaug. Along the way, they come across various obstacles, skinchangers, orcs, spiders, woodland elves (including a reappearance from Orlando Bloom’s Legolas), and the looming threat of a force called the Necromancer. Bilbo even faces plenty of potential mind alterations from the ring he recovered in Gollum’s lair, all of this leading up to their arrival at the lonely mountain, and their confrontation against Smaug, himself.
One thing commonly criticized of An Unexpected Journey was the excessive length and content present, with the film clocking in at nearly three hours. It’s something I brought up briefly, but never fully went in depth for. Here, I plan to do just that.
First off, the length: The Hobbit films mark the first time I've ever noticed the length of a Middle-Earth film. Each movie so far has clocked in at over 160 minutes, and they really don’t justify it. With The Lord of the Rings, it made sense, because there really was just too much in the book to cram in under 3 hours. Here, a hefty chunk of the material, the awkward subplots, and the numerous contents that Jackson took from the Appendices of Middle Earth, feels like little more than blatant filler. Entertaining filler, but nevertheless, padding is still padding. There’s too much crammed in these movies, and the potentially interesting elements feel compromised because of this. For instance, one character in the movie, Tauriel (an original creation by Jackson and his writers, played by Evangeline Lilly), promises to be a very strong and awesome character, but is eventually relegated to a silly, and unnecessary love triangle (if you can even call it that), and on top of that, the movie ends on the most eye rolling cliffhanger. If these movies were going to be the amazing prequels they deserved to be, they need to be simpler, and leaner.
In spite of this, however, I still maintain that The Desolation of Smaug remains a more confident successor with a more balanced pace. The numerous, lengthy action scenes move at such non-stop velocity, and though they don’t do the quieter, more serious moments much justice, they remain thoroughly watchable, especially one sequence with the dwarves riding barrels down a lake, featuring some of the most creative orc deaths in the Middle Earth saga, and lifted by very some welcome humor. As always, one of the main talking points of Jackson’s films is the look of it, and working with many of the technicians that have collaborated with Jackson since the beginning, they continue to expand wonderfully on the lore and locations of Middle Earth. Just as an exercise in spectacle and enchantment, the movie justifies a viewing.
Of course, one of the most talked about elements of the film is the build up, and the payoff of the confrontation with Smaug, played with ferocious charisma by Benedict Cumberbatch, having a banner year, and giving what is his best of the year. Cumberbatch is to this dragon what Andy Serkis was to Gollum. Smaug is so imposing, smart, frightening, sinister, and the simple facial expressions and close distance was enough to chill my bones. Excellent motion-capture acting on his part (and one that continues to prove Weta Digital to be the best in motion-capture), and the raspy, yet elegant vocal work is awesome (due credit is also deserved for the sound team on that). That sequence where the group finally faces him is a lengthy one, but very well executed. It clocks in at about 40 minutes (Yeah, I timed it), but I would have guessed 22 at most. The rest of the cast is also quite excellent, but really, this is all Smaug’s show.
In case you’re wondering how much I’m looking forward to There and Back Again, I’m looking very forward to it, but I’m worried in how they’re going to continue on from the finale of Smaug without it feeling very awkward, because, as I said, that cliffhanger that they leave us on was an absolute irritation. However, I’m still willing to give it a chance. As I’ve said before, it is unfair to judge only a portion of a full movie without important context, so I’m very much anticipating it with caution.
PS. It was very tempting to make a joke about Jackson adapting the Silmarillion.
****1/2 / *****