Much like its predecessor, Peter Jackson’s latest film inevitably falls victim to the success of its forebears. No film deserves to be judged by such high standards, but Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is trapped between the exceptional standards set by his previous Tolkien adaptations and the hallowed source material itself. Admittedly Jackson and his team have invited some of this pressure upon themselves; but by expanding what is essentially a children’s tale of a heroic quest for dragon-guarded gold, and attempting to relate this plot to the subsequent events of The Lord of Rings trilogy, Jackson risks losing sight of the central story he set out to tell.
The difficulties of structure but of tone and pacing that plagued the first film are handled with a greater degree of assurance here. The Desolation of Smaug starts with a sense of urgency and purpose that An Unexpected Journey‘s meandering pace lacked, and continues in a similar vein for much of its running time. Breathless, entertaining and visually dazzling it may be, yet there also remains a sense that the essence of Tolkien’s world dissipates amid all of the dwarfish buffoonery. The famous barrel sequence, for instance, is generally outstanding but is eventually let down by overindulgent slapstick which similarly deflated the ending of An Unexpected Journey. This is perhaps most glaring fault of an enticing opening third, whose depiction of the hallucinogenic Mirkwood is truly wonderful, as is the group’s encounter with a number of entirely too-large-for-comfort arachnids.
Oddly enough some aspects where Jackson departs wholeheartedly from Tolkien’s novel work well. Evangeline Lilly’s much discussed Tauriel characterisation has become something of a focus of purist derision; yet she provides Jackson with an inter-racial romance which while completely unnecessary is also surprisingly effective given Tolkien’s largely segregated world.
However, the felt need to add yet another character in Tauriel is in itself a little revealing; it seems more than slightly disconcerting given that two thirds of the way into this trilogy, the audience knows far more about an admittedly well portrayed yet still superfluous elfish guard than it does about a number of supposed lead characters. In relation to the film who can tell their Bombur from their Bifur? Neither play an active role in anything that isn’t a fight scene (of which there are many), and Bombur seems to once again be the only dwarf bereft of actual dialogue. Other members of the company serve their purpose: Dwalin is fierce, Gloin troubled, and James Nesbitt’s Bofur pops up every now again as comic relief. Only Thorin, Balin and Kili are fleshed out in any meaningful way but all three are excellent, if a little overshadowed by their Elven counterparts. Bloom’s return to the franchise as Legolas might be exciting but unnecessary in terms of the story. This is, after all, supposed to be a tale of thirteen dwarves, a hobbit and a wizard. The clue is in the title.
Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is once again fantastic; as he begins to understand the powers of his new ring, Freeman’s deft performance hints at sinister powers but it also foregrounds the character’s inherent sympathy. It is something of a shame then that his story becomes a little lost in the film’s action-saturated middle third. Finally enter Smaug, the film’s trump card. He is the dragon on which much of Jackson’s trilogy depends, and in him there is (thankfully) no room for complaint. In a number of extended scenes which echo the iconic “Riddles in the Dark” sequence in the previous film, Smaug truly delivers. Much like Andy Serkis’ Gollum, Smaug is a cinematic wonder, a joint creation between the magicians at Weta and actor Benedict Cumberbatch. The latter may not receive the same level of praise as Serkis but the dragon is a colossal success in every sense.
An Unexpected Journey was a mixed bag; The Desolation of Smaug suffers from some similar problems. On this outing, however, Jackson delivers more than enough to rekindle the trilogy’s furnaces in anticipation of the trilogy’s third and final installment.