It’s almost a shame that human nature finds comfort in threes. The modern trend toward telling stories in trilogies seems to ignore the fact that some of them benefit from simplicity and compression. Director and co-writer Peter Jackson’s film version of The Hobbit is a case in point. This second episode, The Desolation of Smaug, has all the elements of a good action movie, but as the middle peg in a trilogy, it just isn’t a superlative one.
We rejoin our heroes – Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Thorin (Richard Armitage), and his 12 dwarf entourage – further into their journey to the Lonely Mountain, home to the golden city of Erebor, still in the possession of the foul dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Still pursued by a deadly pack of orcs, servants of a dark master known only as the Necromancer, and under pressure to reach the mountain on the one day of the year when a secret door can be opened, they are about to take a shortcut through Mirkwood, a dark and mysterious forest.
The party’s adventures will bring them into combat with giant spiders, wood elves, suspicious citizens of the tiny Laketown, and of course, the dragon himself. Gandalf, meanwhile, leaves the group to investigate the Necromancer’s dark magic, and what it means for the rumoured return of an ancient enemy.
Continuing Jackson’s ambition to link JRR Tolkien’s simple adventure novel to Jackson’s larger Lord of the Rings movies, this second film in The Hobbit trilogy continues to pull in all manner of secondary material from Tolkien lore, even inventing entirely new characters to drive its subplots. Fortunately, there are fewer talking heads scenes and less exposition here than in the previous instalment, but it still feels at times like Jackson is stalling, artificially extending the plot to leave room for the big finish. The hefty running time (2:41) doesn’t help either.
Even so, there’s still plenty of room to appreciate how it all plays out. The scope of these conflicts may be smaller than in LOTR, but Jackson can still put together thrilling action scenes. Orlando Bloom returns to the screen as Legolas, the swift and handsome elf archer, and along with Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel (an excellent addition), they provide some exciting acrobatics. Each of the film’s best set pieces is loads of fun, particularly a river chase involving some floating barrels. As usual, though, they’re also quite violent – these aren’t movies for young kids, and especially in this case if arachnids give you the shivers.
The huge cast continues to be great, each member making the most of their individual moments. Freeman’s Bilbo is much more assured and confident now, and his inner struggle with a certain magic ring provides an interesting counterpoint to his heroics. McKellen and Armitage maintain their excellence, and there are additional standout performances from Aidan Turner as Kili, and Luke Evans as Bard, the Laketown bargeman with a family history involving the dragon.
And Middle-Earth itself continues to be a significant character, with the amazing landscapes of New Zealand blending seamlessly with CGI to create architectural marvels. The greatest success of these films has been Jackson’s ability to immerse us in this world.
But there’s never any doubt where we’re headed, and that The Desolation of Smaug is meant to set up the final chapter. Once we’ve had all three parts to the trilogy, I think we’ll see this one for what it is – a lively journey, but mere steps along a path to a final destination.
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