When all is said and done, when all three parts of this preposterously overlong project are finally formed and released for all to inspect, it is then and only then when we will be able to gauge the success (or for many, the failure) of what Peter Jackson attempted with The Hobbit. Clearly hoping to crush future prospects for a return to Tolkien’s world while vying to recapture a specialized Lord of the Rings lightning in a bottle he specializes in, one has to remember that the filmmaker did not want to return to the universe of orcs, dwarves, and wizards. Dragged back into the fray once Guillermo Del Toro jumped ship, Jackson has had to juxtapose his own artistic angles with those crafted for another director. Not only that, he has an entire epic behind him, constantly tapping him on the shoulder to suggest that this triptych back to Middle Earth was unnecessary and self-aggrandizing.
Still, films can only really be judged on their merits, and in the case of Part Two in Bilbo Baggins adventure to the Lonely Mountain, Jackson has ditched the exposition for several shiny set-pieces. In The Desolation of Smaug, the action rages like an irate reptile and there’s humor and heart where only the humdrum once dwelled. Far from perfect (it’s no Return of the King or Fellowship of the Ring) and yet rousing in scope and spirit, it’s a fine center section, a precursor to what appears to be a great war ahead and a reminder of how far our kooky little characters have already come. Bringing back (female) fan favorite Legolas may seem like a cheap marketing ploy, but the reminder of cinematic glories past helps push this part of The Hobbit into the realm where Jackson once reigned supreme.
We open on a conversation between Gandolf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) and Thorin Oakensheild (Richard Armitage), setting up the entire journey to reclaim the Dwarf Kingdom, and its bounty of riches, from Smaug. It is here where we see how the aging sorcerer convinces the angry heir that they need a “robber” to retrieve the Arkenstone and gain back the throne. Cut to the company being attacked by a bunch of oversized arachnids and thus the pattern for The Desolation of Smaug has been established. In between expositional beats, Jackson and his masterful F/X crew will take us through a frightening forest and into to the Realm of the Elves, their Elvenking Thranduil, (Lee Pace), father of Legolas (Orlando Bloom). We also meet a female fighter (Evangeline Lilly) who falls for one of the travelers.
After escaping via empty barrels, our heroes end up in Lake-town, a human outpost with a link to Thorin’s haunted heritage. There, a corrupt overseer (Stephen Fry) welcomes the travelers while Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), who helped smuggle everyone in, sees doom in the island city’s future. When Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his companions finally make it to the Lonely Mountain, they learn that Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is not only alive, but not easily defeated. They attempt to burn him in the massive furnaces within the caves, but, instead, the beast flees, promising to torch Lake-town to the ground for their proposed part in his planned defeat. In the meantime, Gandolf learns that a dark force known as the Necromancer is using the one-armed Orc Azog (Manu Bennett) to form any army to destroy Middle Earth.
When you consider the spectacle involved and the edge of your seat derring-do on display, The Desolation of Smaug can’t help but satisfy. It soothes a wicked itch that anyone who saw An Unexpected Journey still has, a need to feel the majesty of the material within all the fairy tale trappings and mythologizing. The spider battle is something, followed almost immediately by the video game insanity of the barrel escape. Gandalf gets a solo moment vs. Azog and his minions while Bilbo braces to take on one of the most impressive CG creatures created. Indeed, the confrontation with Smaug, involving molten gold, oversized dwarf halls, and enough vertigo-inducing spaces to make John “Scottie” Ferguson weep is beyond exciting. Interspersed are moments where Legolas and his equally adept counterparts pick apart enemies with amazing bow and arrow efficiency.
Jackson hasn’t solved all the problems by throwing stunts at it, however. The whole Necromancer/Orc angle makes little sense, since it’s initially set up as pure revenge only to be constantly countermanded by unexplained (or perhaps, poorly plotted out) motives. It seems odd that, with their target in their sites, the orcs are constantly called back instead of finishing the job. Similarly, we are saddled with a mid-movie moment between Lilly and her hunky outsider that goes on for far too long. Indeed, everything about Lake-town feels a bit tacked on, as if Jackson wanted to give Stephen Fry a chance at Comic-Con coin and wrote scene after scene of him acting like a dirtier, more diabolic version of his famed Blackadder characters. He’s fun to watch if wholly superfluous. Also, Thorin shows no signs of stepping out of his heroic promises like the novel indicates he will. Armitage is a fine actor, but he seems locked in a look meant to inspire gravitas, not true depth.
And yet, it’s hard to say if these slights are part of a bigger picture path the entire trilogy is set upon. Indeed, since he is making these movies simultaneously, allowed the leisure of “guaranteed” success without having to wait to see if each effort is an actual hit, Jackson can plant seeds within each section that will only bear fruit once the entirety of his vision is finally revealed. For those who fume over the notion of the filmmaker taking a smaller novel and making an equally elephantine adaptation similar to the LOTR‘s three, The Desolation of Smaug will do nothing to change your mind. It’s built on bloat. On the other hand, if you enjoyed Part One and can’t wait to see where Bilbo and his buddies go next, you’ll adore what Jackson does here. Even the cliffhanger ending works, since we are well aware that we are in this for the long haul, not some sloppy instant gratification. Unfortunately, this means the entire success of The Hobbit rests on its final installment. So far, the journey has been more or less satisfying, if not 100% solid.