Peter Jackson continues to his triple-feature cash-grab with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second part of his epic endeavor to split up one novel into three gargantuan features. Jackson’s approach interweaves elements from Tolkien’s ancillary writings and journals into the central narrative of The Hobbit and the results are, at times, ambitious and interesting and, at others, redundant, padding on more story than this trilogy needed.
Martin Freeman was the best thing about the first in the series, An Unexpected Journey. His seriocomic screen personality was the perfect fit for the role of the uptight, provincial, ultimately heroic Bilbo Baggins. But, apart from the final act, Freeman is largely relegated to the background in Desolation of Smaug, which concerns itself more with how the dwarves win the alliance of the elves (something not in the book) as the latter begin to suspect that the orcs’ hell-bent pursuit of the dwarves to keep their leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) from reclaiming his crown could, in fact, presage more ominous troubles involving the dreaded Sauron. So, Jackson sneaks in Orlando Bloom, resuming his role as Legolas, to please fans pining for more reminders of his original series along with Evangeline Lilly as the pretty elfin warrior Tauriel who (in another deviation from Tolkien) bats her eyelashes at the ruggedly handsome dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner).
The exploits of the elves and dwarves, with Bilbo in tow, are woven together with the story thread of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) journeying toward a confrontation with the orc chieftain at their mountain stronghold and his realization that Middle Earth’s current troubles are only a prelude to more epic confrontations to come. The Gandalf sequences are among Smaug’s strongest and feature something that Jackson excels at: Depicting physical menace, whether in the form of a hulking orc (the orc leader is really pretty terrifying in these Hobbit films), the orcs’ monstrous dog-like consorts or in the phantasm of a mocking Sauron. These figures, placed in the nightmarish setting of an evil and decayed fortress, combine to create a visually striking and an emotionally powerful experience.
Luckily, Jackson also scores in many other action sequences, principally in the lengthy confrontation between Bilbo and the much-hyped dragon, Smaug. The first half of it, anyway, when Jackson allows his effects designers to showcase the exquisite creation that is Smaug–richly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch–meticulously rendered from snout to tail. A glimpse of the Smaug is (almost) worth the price of admission.
The second half of this sequence, however, features all that’s wrong with Jackson’s handling of action; the entire sequence falls apart as the perils and pacing ramp up and any sense of spatial coherence is utterly lost. Once things get fiery and noisy and chaotic between Bilbo and the dwarves and Smaug, Jackson does whatever he feels like, spatially, for the sake of action-scene convenience (look to the Mines of Moria sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring for similar liberties taken, though why carp when that movie was so masterful in other ways?)..
It’s what drives me nuts, time and again, about these movies: the relative nature of space. The needs of the chase precede the logic of architecture, so the halls, the forge, the staircases are as spacious and as fluid as Jackson needs them to be, appearing arbitrarily as the scene hurtles onward. The effect is childishly silly, especially in the moment when Smaug finds himself facing a monumental statue of a dwarf-king. It appears out of nowhere–without explanation! How’d it get there? Who built it? When? Why?). As we’re wondering, the sequence disintegrates as the most lubricous climax is unleased.
Jackson fares better with the gorgeous evocation of Lake Town, a trading village near the dwarves’ erstwhile kingdom at the foot of The Lonely Mountain. It’s also where the best performance in Smaug can be found–from Stephen Fry playing Lake Town’s mayor, who’s deliciously pompous and corruptible. Though a caricature, Fry’s mayor gives Smaug a relatable human dimension.
It’s natural to be repelled by Jackson’s commercial- and franchise-minded motives, and there’s much about The Desolation of Smaug that falls apart partly because of the director’s complete inability to stage spatially disciplined action. But, ultimately, Jackson delivers escapist entertainment that–like its Hobbit predecessor–functions as the cinematic equivalent of comfort food as we find ourselves in settings and among characters we’ve come to love. And for fans of Tolkien and of Jackson’s big-screen adaptations (like me), that familiarity is often enough.
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace