Like a winged beast from the North, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is upon us. Its predecessor, An Unexpected Journey - Peter Jackson's first film as director since 2009's The Lovely Bones and our first return to Middle-Earth in nine years - was notably not one of my favorite films of the previous year. Overlong, underdeveloped, and tonally inconsistent, it was, in short, a bit of a mess. I considered returning to it over the course of 2013, but, having been so put-off by my initial viewing, I couldn't quite bring myself to do so. Nevertheless, I endeavored to see the sequel as soon as humanly possible; at the very least I thought I might get an interesting review out of it.
Taking refuge in a nearby house - whose owner, Gandalf assures them, will either aid or kill them - the Dwarf company barely escape being eaten after forcing the door shut on the bear's snarling maw. It's only then that Gandalf reveals that the terrifying ursus is, in fact, their host. While I complained about the childish, almost irreverent feel of the previous film - Barry Humphries' flamboyantly hideous Goblin King is dispatched in a throwaway gesture - here it began to seem less a marketing decision and more fable-like. Having dealt with the necessary exposition in An Unexpected Journey, vis-a-vis the Necromancer, Jackson here has the space to take a more fantastical approach to the material. Even the severe, unattractive CGI of Azog began to seem like more of a stylistic choice than one born of simple convenience. I can say I honestly began to enjoy The Desolation of Smaug.
I enjoyed it all the way through the hallucinatory, almost Escher-like contortions of Mirkwood, all the way through to the troupes' incarceration in the hall of the Wood Elves. I even thought the psychic appearance of Galadrial was bearable, leading into the inevitable departure of Gandalf and still somewhat superfluous Necromancer subplot. At least he got a mention in the book. In any case, the spider sequence that followed was truly memorable: Peter Jackson has a knack with the creepy crawlies, shown both in King Kong and Lord of the Rings, and the arachnid attack here was pretty flesh-crawling for a kid's film. I could even get on-board with the character of Tauriel, a female elf not featured in the book. Though a bit of Tolkien purist, I can appreciate Middle-Earth's almost complete dearth of female characters - Arwen and Eowyn aside - so, in this particular instance, why not? It was about this point the film decided to do away with all that good will by introducing a love triangle between Auriel, Legolas (yes, Legolas), and one of the Dwarf twins. Sod it.
Given the men-on-a-mission storyline, throwing in an unnecessary romantic element feels like a salve to people who wouldn't otherwise be going to see a film titled The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Similarly, while the Necromancer strands seems to be gathering weight, do we really to need to see Gandalf facing off against the shadow of Sauron amidst the ruins of Dol Guldur. Like the love triangle - which apparently Evangeline Lilly hated and may or may not have been lied to over - the inclusion of Sauron feels like pandering, as well as a way of artificially raising the stakes. It's as if the filmmakers don't believe we're capable of caring about the central quest unless the whole of Middle-Earth is somehow at stake. There's a perfectly good story here, just not 7½ hours worth of it - an obvious criticism, sure, but a fairly damning one. I don't know the financial side of things - Peter Jackson swears that turning The Hobbit into three films was on purely artistic grounds - but do the folks over at New Line really believe all fantasy films need to require a loo break?
There are still lots of bits and pieces to enjoy: Martin Freeman is a minor delight as Bilbo; the dragon Smaug is a wonderful creation, crawling and clawing his way through the ruins of Erebor, rumbling away in the sonorous tones of Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock reunion!); but there's just too much other stuff. What should, in theory, be supporting material, which should provide drive and clarity to the main story, has been blown out of proportion, meanwhile so much of the key cast remains one-note. Richard Armitage's Thorin, for instance, is still just an obsessive. He's son of a king, he's lived a tough life, he wants his kingdom back, and what? Think what The Lord of the Rings had done with Aragorn by this point, how much more tragic and heroic, how much more kingly, compared to the surly Thorin. Meanwhile, the film gives time over to Stephen Fry's Master of Laketown, a broad, unsanitary caricature of corruption with his own cut-rate Wormtongue. While The Lord of the Rings lent plenty of room for expansion, The Hobbit (both 1 and 2) are the only films of which I'd like to see a reduced Director's Cut - a neat 100-or-so minutes each would be a vast improvement.
There's so much superfluous stuff dragging the main story down that the climax, which would ideally focus on Bilbo and the key Dwarves, becomes a choppy nightmare. You've got Auriel and the wounded Kili getting loved-up in Laketown, Bard the Bowman in The Master's cell, Legolas in pursuit of this film's particular big, bad Orc, and the forces of Sauron marching on Erebor (where they'll presumably arrive just in time for the Battle of the Five Armies). As such, the supposed climax of Smaug taking to the skies to torch Lake Town manages to feel a wee bit incidental. There's also a particular moment where Smaug goes rampaging through the Dwarven forge after Bilbo, dragging down mine carts and shattering stone, that's so overloaded with CG detail that the whole thing achieves a sense of surreality. Even the famed barrel ride feels a bit like Donkey Kong at points.
I know a lot of people who will vociferously defend The Hobbit as a world-building exercise, a chance to return to Middle-Earth, but The Desolation of Smaug continues to squander its dramatic potential. For every nice touch - like the coins falling from Smaug's underbelly that alert the Dwarves to his passage overhead - there are ten muddled moments crowding out the stuff that we should care about, that I wanted to care about. I found myself needing a prescription for Ritalin. I won't draw this painful dissection out any further other than to say that perhaps the most simple criticism I can make of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, like the film that preceded it, is that it forgets the message of Tolkien's books, that often it's the little things that matter most. Amidst all the CGI and spectacle, you lose track of the characters, and that's just a fundamental error in storytelling.
The third film, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, is due out December 2014. Maybe, just maybe, it can find a way to bring all these strands together, justify the focus on so much otherwise superfluous characters and material, and thereby negate many of my previous criticisms. I hope...