Many complained of the pacing issues with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” — Peter Jackson’s first part of the prequel trilogy to “The Lord of the Rings”– and I can’t say I disagree. I do not agree with the general opinion that the initial films first half was the issue, no. As far as I’m concerned as soon as Bilbo Baggins left the wonderfully well adapted version of The Shire and the film began to descend into its second half, “An Unexpected Journey” seemed to lose its way. “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” seeks to resolve these issues by thrusting us right into the action, but then expects us to carry on caring until the credits roll and we are expected to empty our wallets for the next one. An unfortunate mistake.
(Note: This film is going to fill you in on previous events from the first movie. I suggest you watch the first film otherwise you’ll spend much of this one in confusion I would think. The first one is also better.)
Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage), Gandalf (Ian Mckellen) and the rest of the Dwarves (God as my witness I’m not naming them all) are still on their way to Erebor, the Dwarf kingdom inside the Lonely Mountain that was taken years before by the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Thorin is the grandson of the last king under the mountain and so he is seeking to reclaim his throne and unite the Dwarven kingdoms using the archenstone. A precious white jewel guarded by Smaug.
Gandalf separates early on from the party to investigate strange happenings elsewhere as he senses a long absent dark presence returning to Middle Earth. Following the separation of Gandalf (he does not return to the Dwarves though we do follow his side story) the Dwarves and Bilbo continue to make their way towards the lonely mountain, a journey that will take them through cursed woods, spider nests, Elven kingdoms, rivers in barrels, laketowns and eventually to the extinguished kingdom inhabited by Smaug the Merciless.
The story has a lot to show you but the experience is reminiscent of a tour bus ride. You see many lovely looking places, but unless you really cared before going in, your not going to be invested. Initially I quite enjoyed the sequences in Mirkwood which causes the Dwarves to end up coccooned by spider silk, but this is because I hadn’t been given time to get sick of it. I’ve heard time and time again that the barrel scene, wherein the dwarves and Bilbo float down river rapids whilst being pursued by Dwarves and Elves, is the most “epic” scene in the movie and I can’t fathom why that is. Maybe it’s the endless shooting and maiming of Orcs that excited people? The action itself carries little weight and an arrow going through an Orcs head is little different from sticking a toothpick through a shell-less egg.
It’s been the case since the beginning of Peter Jackson’s attempts to put Middle Earth on the big screen that action is the main name of the game. In “The Two Towers” and “Return of the King” I was mostly OK with the level of fighting because it was paced properly and each area actually had something else to offer besides severed heads. “Desolation of Smaug” turns severing heads into a game, and that’s why the numerous and diabolically lengthy action sequences were dull to watch. The only part of the barrel sequence I truly enjoyed was when Bombur (Stephen Hunter) rolls over the Orcs in the most self indulgently cartoon way that it is just hilarious. When the fat Dwarf regains stability and he begins spinning with his blades sticking out of the barrel, it is among the only laughs I was able to muster.
The rest of the humour that I actually cared about is supplied by Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins. Martin has the comic timing nailed down and can therefore make scenes funny sometimes without saying a word. No slapstick required. The problem is that Bilbo isn’t the main character anymore, that honour is bestowed onto Thorin. Well, Thorin is two dimensional even by Tolkien standards. He relies on his gruff voice and combat ability to make us care, and sadly for some people it works. Bilbo is the best character besides Gollum in my opinion, and it was a shame to see him cast aside in his own movie, this is the films biggest mistake.
The aesthetic of the film is also quite jarring. Most of the lighting looks completely fake and it gives this sheen that doesn’t look good at all. It was in the first film to an extent but it didn’t bug me like it did here. I don’t know if the lighting was CGI or if it had just been treated digitally, but I hate it. In fact, “Desolation” elects to render all too many of its characters in CGI. I understand why Azog needs it, and I understand why Smaug needs it, but why do normal Orcs need it? Why does a shot of a Dwarf running down the stairs require it? I have no idea, but it doesn’t make things better.
Benedict Cumberbatch is spectacular as Smaug. The voice is perfectly deep and reptillian, with the appropriate level of grandeur required for the character of Smaug. The scenes in Erebor do just go on for too long again and by the time the 2 hour mark came around I was gone. I had lost all interest even though there were lots of lovely colourful places and many funny Dwarves to laugh at.
“The Desolation of Smaug” is 2 and a half hours of meaningless action. There is little else the film has to offer, and the attempts to add new content to the established lore — most noticeably in the form of a relationship between an Elf and a Dwarf — feel forced and unanimously tiresome.