Say this about Peter Jackson’s decision to expand The Hobbit into two movies, then three: it probably wasn’t motivated by greed. Doubtless Warner Brothers appreciates the opportunity to make an extra movie’s worth of money, but Jackson seems happy to luxuriate in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien as long as possible. Witness The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, chapter two of three in the plumped-up Hobbit saga: it is Jackson’s shortest Lord of the Rings movie yet, which means that it still runs two hours and 40 minutes. Surely a simple cash-in would be easier… and shorter.
As protracted as it is, the several films’ running time is not the issue so much as Jackson’s constitutional inability to modulate his approach to the material. The excess that characterizes the inventive action sequences shapes the rest of the movie. The new film picks up with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and a fellowship of dwarves well into the unexpected journey initiated in the first film, yet its opening moments still bulge with exposition, flashing back to Gandalf’s first meeting with Thorin (Richard Armitage), the most self-serious and least interesting of the dwarves.
Gandalf doesn’t have many other scenes with the others; he spends much of the movie off on his own, witnessing portentous warnings about a gathering evil, the evil we’ve seen manifested in the Lord of the Rings movies. The dwarves and Bilbo, meanwhile, are cocooned by giant spiders, captured by elves, and, eventually, menaced by the dragon Smaug, among other perils. They meet some of Tolkien’s characters, including the elfin archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Bard of Lake-Town (Luke Evans), and one character created by Jackson and his co-screenwriters, the warrior elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), to provide a more active female presence in an otherwise dude-heavy fantasy universe.
Tauriel does contribute some ass-kicking, but her status as, essentially, a female Legolas (and her participation in an elf/dwarf love triangle), also adds to Desolation of Smaug‘s overstuffed muchness. Some of that muchness is entertaining: around the midpoint of the film, the dwarves, elves, and orcs intersect for a slapstick battle down a raging river. Dwarves tumble around in barrels, arrows fly in all directions, and elves keep swooping in at the last minute. The scene, reminiscent of a chase from Spielberg’s Adventures of Tintin (which Jackson produced), is not particularly suspenseful, but the choreography of mostly-animated action is dizzying fun.
But momentum that extreme can’t last. And while the film offers welcome quieter moments, some of these also have a bombastic quality. The camera is constantly pulling back, rushing forward, and circling around the characters during conversations, as if every scene must contain multiple reminders of the enormity and excitement that constitutes Jackson’s idea of Middle-Earth. The smallest of tasks—like, say, finding a keyhole and walking through a door—are turned into their own pointless epics.
The keyhole adventure, inert as it is, brings Bilbo back to the center of the movie’s action. For much of its midsection, he’s driven to the periphery by elf-related love triangles and Lake-Town politics (the Master of the place is played by Stephen Frye, in mostly uninteresting conflict with Bard). As in the first film, Bilbo is showcased in a late-act adventure, here when he’s pitted against a character created with elaborate special effects and a wonderful human performance underneath. His solo encounter with the dragon Smaug isn’t quite up to the previous movie’s scene with Gollum (Andy Serkis); Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug, while scary, lacks Gollum’s unpredictability or thematic resonance. But the images, like Smaug emerging from an infinite supply of gold coins and jewelry that cascades around him, have great detail, and (as in the earlier film) Jackson achieves a smart balance of spectacle and character.
That Smaug sequence ends in a cliffhanger, of course. It has to: this is a middle movie, and while the early exposition gives it a makeshift beginning, the story can’t have much of an ending. It will be concluded next year, in another epic running a minimum of 160 minutes. Per the franchise’s repetitive pattern, it will look a lot like the first two films, with several beautifully animated action sequences, a few character grace notes amidst a lot of dull exposition, and many nods to the events of the first Lord of the Rings trilogy. At this point, it would be foolish to expect Jackson to change his approach, foolish, in other words, for non-fans to feel transported by elaborate, sometimes thrilling, but ultimately limited fan service.