I was one of a few people who thought the first film in The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, was pretty good. For all the boredom of the first half, the riveting second half was as exciting as the best parts of The Lord of the Rings.
And so it was with slightly heightened expectations that I saw the second instalment, The Desolation of Smaug, which by all accounts is better than the first one. For the most part I agree, though it is still far too long at 161 minutes (8 minutes shorter than Unexpected Journey), rendering the final instalment, There and Back Again (due end of the year) in very real danger of “hobbiting” everyone out.
I mean, as much as I love the world JRR Tolkien created and Peter Jackson interpreted, there has to come a point when it all becomes too much for people – apart from the die hard fanboys – to take. I felt that at times in Desolation of Smaug; there was a feeling that I had seen it all before, and the sense of wonder and magic that made LOTR so remarkable had begun to wane.
Still, there are a lot of things to like about Desolation of Smaug. For starters, no more boring tea parties. The film gets into the action a lot quicker and is better at sustaining it. There are still some slow bits but on the whole the excitement was much better distributed, with a few creative and amusing action sequences that bring freshness to the franchise. Secondly, Martin Freeman seems much more at ease this time as the protagonist, Bilbo Baggins. There were at times in Unexpected Journey when he appeared out of place, but this time there were no such concerns. Thirdly, even though he’s not in the books at all, Orlando Bloom returns as everyone’s favourite elf, Legolas, and he actually has a pretty meaty role as well. Joining him is Lost star Evangeline Lilly, who plays a female elf and one of the only women in the whole movie. A lot of Tolkien fans derided the decision to create her character (she’s not in the book), but I think it adds to the film and was the right decision in the end.
And last, but not least, the titular dragon himself, Smaug, voiced by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch, the man with the best voice in Hollywood. I was sceptical at first because I thought a talking dragon with humanistic emotions would come across as silly on screen, but I could not have been more wrong. Smaug, in all his CGI glory, received a lot more screen time than I had expected, and he was not only an awesome sight but also a great character. I saw the film in ordinary 2D but I hear that in IMAX, and especially in 3D and at the 48 frame rate, the visual experience is unbelievable.
As a piece of visually stunning entertainment, Desolation of Smaug definitely delivers, but problems with it as a trilogy film remain. While LOTR was three lengthy films made from three very long books, The Hobbit is three equally lengthy films made from one short book. While Jackson adds a lot of other material from Tolkien’s works into it, the film still feels like it was trying too hard to “build” itself into an alternate LOTR. But The Hobbit and LOTR are so different (the plethora of dwarves, for starters), and should be different when adapted to the screen. This is why I still think The Hobbit would have been much better off had Guillermo del Toro stayed on as director and the series shortened to just one or even two films.
Instead, Peter Jackson, as great as he is, has arguably stretched the material too thin. It’s obvious he loves his work too much to cut it down, and he wants his audience to be as immersed in Middle Earth as he is. The result is that The Hobbit films, at least the first two, come across as director’s cuts of a diluted version of LOTR, which is potentially a dream come true for some but also overkill for others.
So while I will admit I enjoyed Desolation of Smaug more than Unexpected Journey and thought it was an excellent, well-crafted and fun film with shades of the best stuff LOTR had to offer, I will also confess a bit of “hobbit fatigue” creeping in. Yes there was explosive action, incredible visual effects and lovable characters, but all of that was enveloped in an increasingly numbing familiarity that prevented me from feeling the same level of exhilaration and wonder I experienced in LOTR.
All I can say is that I hope it doesn’t affect my experience of the concluding chapter, There and Back Again, in December.
4 stars out of 5