Flash For Fantasy: Returning to Middle-Earth in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

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Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is scored of the prospects.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is scared of the prospects.

Upon its late 2012 release, the first The Hobbit movie by Peter Jackson, An Unexpected Journey, was greeted by rather mixed reviews. Still, fans of the Kiwi director and of Middle Earth creator J.R.R. Tolkien alike have been desperately waiting for the second part of the trilogy, The Desolation Of Smaug, for a year. While we’ve come to expect epic filmmaking from Peter Jackson, the beginning of the saga was fairly disappointing in many ways. For that reason, there’s one big question surrounding the sequel. Is The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug able to correct some of the flaws of An Unexpected Journey?

The second part of the trilogy is set a year after where the first one left off. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his company of Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), and thirteen Dwarves continue their dangerous quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain, the Arkenstone, and thus the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. On their journey, they encounter baneful Orcs led by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), the skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), and a swarm of giant spiders in the treacherous forest of Mirkwood.

After having been captured by Wood Elves commanded by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace), the Dwarves manage to escape to the lake-town of Esgaroth with the help of a smuggler named Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). From there, they are finally able to move on to the Lonely Mountain itself – and with it, the greatest danger imaginable – a creature so fearful that it puts Thorin, Bilbo, Balin (Ken Stott), and the rest of their company to the test. How far do their courage and their friendship go to face the Dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch)?

As much as we’ve all enjoyed Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings series, you simply can’t talk about The Desolation Of Smaug without discussing its negatives. First of all, it can still be debated whether a 90,000-word children’s book really needs to be adapted cinematically in a big-budget eight-hour trilogy. While Peter Jackson repeats his mantra-like stance that the decision to make three Hobbit movies instead of two was artistically motivated, you simply can’t shake off the notion that the sole reason for this approach was a commercial one. Hollywood’s money make machine can do that to you, of course, but in this case it’s already proven to be more than a recipe for disaster.

Not surprisingly, the history of this version of The Hobbit has been a long and complicated one. Originally, it was supposed to be a two-part project, with Pan’s Labyrinth creator Guillermo Del Toro at the helm of the first movie and Peter Jackson himself directing the second film. Then Guillermo Del Toro opted to leave for greener pastures – known as Pacific Rim – and the whole thing turned into a trilogy with Peter Jackson in charge. You can’t help but feel that maybe, just maybe, they should’ve stuck with the original concept.

To put it mildly, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug suffers from the very same problems as An Unexpected Journey. We’re still treated to the same 3D with high frame rate, the same (occasionally less than stellar) CGI effects, the same slow-moving storytelling, and the same appearances supposed to guarantee some sort of continuity and familiarity with the Lord Of The Rings universe. Clocking in at 161 minutes, it’s one of the shorter projects in Peter Jackson’s body of work, but that doesn’t change the fact that it feels like one of his longer ones.

It’s not only that the director and his screenwriting team have taken the liberties to implant some changes in the tale of Bilbo Baggins, even to the point of altering what some fans might consider essential parts of the Middle-Earth chronicles. In the case of the second Hobbit movie, it might be a matter of ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth,’ as four people – including Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro themselves – have been responsible for the script of The Desolation Of Smaug. It’s highly likely that each of them wanted to leave his or her mark on the film, with very mixed results.

Does the second part of The Hobbit at least entertain? The answer is a definite maybe. At times, it’s really enjoyable, while there are also more than enough moments where The Desolation Of Smaug just drags on endlessly, despite the rather short running time for a Peter Jackson movie. Chaos is probably the best way to describe what transpires in the film, but without a systematic nature. We’re treated to a myriad of characters that simply come and go, only fulfilling a certain function, never to return again. As a consequence, the storytelling suffers badly, and the sole plot device seems to be the ‘damsel in distress’ principle – with the company of Dwarves being rescued by a number of dramatis personae including Bilbo.

In a way, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug leaves little room for imagination. With its 3D, high frame rate, and heavy use of CGI, the film tries too hard to be as photorealistic as possible and falls victim to its own (overly high) ambitions – while forgetting about what should matter in a movie, a good and captivating script. Perhaps, then, it’s only fitting that The Desolation Of Smaug ends right when the story appears to get going just somewhat, taking a cue from previous blockbuster trilogies such as Pirates Of The Caribbean and The Matrix. ‘Thank you for your money – and come back for more of that jazz next year!’

Seen at Cineplex, Limburg an der Lahn, Germany, on 12 December 2013.