I never thought turning The Hobbit into three films was a good idea. I wasn’t on board with the two-film version either, but the idea of a book shorter than any of the volumes in The Lord of the Rings getting blown up into three movies struck me as a bad idea. But Peter Jackson won me over with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It wasn’t the Hobbit I wanted, but it was the Hobbit we had, and returning to Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth felt like getting to know an old friend again, so I was willing to forgive some of the excesses since they were just so darn creative. All of which meant I was bouncing off the walls all day Friday waiting to see the next chapter, The Desolation of Smaug. And while this newest whirl through Middle-earth is every bit as dazzling and inventive as Jackson’s other films, as a movie, as a piece of storytelling that exists in its own right, this is wheel-spinning of the highest order.
Part of the problem is the problem inherent with all second acts: what to do to keep things interesting without moving too far towards a resolution, but without making it feel like you’re just killing time. And sadly, you can count of the scenes in The Desolation of Smaug that seem to exist solely to keep the story from concluding before the third film. Most of which exist in the last third of the film as Jackson and company delve much deeper into the human world of Laketown than really seems necessary. Up to this point, the film totally had me, to the point where I was ready to proclaim it better than the first one. Yes, there was a detour with Gandalf and Radagast that essentially told us information we already knew, but from the moment Bilbo and the dwarves enter Mirkwood forest until they arrive at Laketown, the film is packed with imaginative, exhilarating sequences that show Jackson pulling out all the cinematic stops. The company’s escape from the halls of an elf king by floating away in empty wine barrels practically brims with dazzling action. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it moves things forward, and it’s a high water mark the film immediately distances itself from almost as soon as it’s over.
Because before we know it, we’re delving into Laketown politics and social inequality and this epic adventure suddenly feels small and petty. These are characters barely glimpsed in the book, and while I get Jackson wanting to give them some more oomph — particularly given the roles some of them play later — it’s the way he chooses to go about it that vexes. Then he bafflingly splits up the dwarves, leaving some behind in Laketown ostensibly to look after a wounded comrade, but in reality to provide for another action sequence when what we really want to see is the mountain and the dragon we’ve been building towards for over two hundred minutes. It’s not that Laketown is poorly conceived or its characters badly acted; it’s just not what the story wants or the audience needs. It’s like getting half the main course and having more appetizers brought out.
That dragon almost single-handedly rights the ship though. As envisioned by WETA and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of getting into the same neighborhood as Vermithrax from Dragonslayer on the list of great cinematic dragons. He’s a creature of pure, self-assured malevolence, a king both in stature and in his own opinion of himself. The very sight of him makes the dwarves’ quest seem absolutely hopeless, as he toys with Bilbo like a cat with its prey. Which makes Jackson’s decision to stage a lengthy, Rube Goldbergian battle between Smaug and the dwarves through the halls of Erebor feel like a major misstep. All this power and majesty we’ve seen, and he’s very nearly made the fool by a bunch of dwarves essentially running around in circles. Anyone with passing knowledge of the book knows nothing can come of this sequence, but there’s a middle film to pad out, so there we go. And what’s even more frustrating is that it’s a thrilling sequence. On an emotional level, I want to love, but on a rational, critical level, it’s — and I hate using this term, but it applies — unnecessary.
And that’s the central dichotomy of The Desolation of Smaug. As cinematic craft, it’s a marvel, worth soaking up in all of its splendor. As cinematic storytelling, it’s a textbook example of bloat. Entertaining bloat, but bloat nonetheless. And yet I’d still recommend the film. There’s too much enjoyment to be had, even as the film meanders away from anything resembling a resolution. The final images of the film are a perfect summation of its maddening inconsistency: a majestic dragon soaring off into the night, with Bilbo staring after it numbly asking, “What have we done?”