A long-expected hit, or a desolate second outing? Our verdict on Peter Jackson's prequel sequel.
"It never ceases to amaze me- the courage of hobbits." In brief, dishearteningly infrequent moments such as Balin's admiring exchange with protagonist Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug recaptures that subtle boyish charm which made its predecessor a success for this reviewer, earning An Unexpected Journey a 5* score this time last year. Such instances are few and far between, however, in a follow-up which places a necessary yet tedious emphasis on action setpieces over understated displays of heart.
That director Peter Jackson's central focus is on righting the critically alleged wrongs of his first Lord of the Rings prequel effort is as much of a curse as a blessing. Certainly, the core narrative of Desolation gets underway swiftly in comparison to Unexpected's 45-minute prelude to its departure from the Shire, as the latter's titular journey continues after just five minutes of flashback-based exposition, yet by altering the pace from the lighthearted froliccing witnessed last year, Jackson forces his Company's much-awaited final confrontation with Smaug to become a prolonged, excessive third act which soon outstays its welcome. At least two or three suitable junction points upon which the LOTR helm could have placed the film's inevitable cliffhanger came to mind, moreso than was ever the case even in his notably extensive climax to Return of the King. The climax of this entry itself is admittedly executed superbly, sure to leave fans desperate for the third and final act of the series, although that the final scene could have come plenty earlier marks a prominent structural misstep.
The viewer's metaphorical encounter with Smaug the Magnificent doesn't fail to instigate a dramatic impact, though. Benedict Cumberbatch's vocal and computer-animated contribution to this iconic antagonist's Hollywood incarnation makes all the difference, the scale and grandeur of Bilbo's bestial, cunning adversary brought across primarily in the Sherlock star's honed performance, let alone by New Line Pictures' intrepid CGI team. Sauron (aka the Necromancer) is also voiced by the future Hamlet, but the Great Dragon is where his talents are put to the most memorable display, in a portrayal which will undoubtedly be recalled as one of Cumberbatch's finest so far. There and Back Again should enable the actor to redefine his contribution with more screentime for the former series-spanning enemy- in the mean time, his debut alongside Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage is more than enough to keep his vast fanbase content.
Whilst the matter of the film's leads arises, that Freeman, Armitage and Ian McKellen are short-changed for screentime in this second instalment is a fact which cannot be ignored. Jackson crafted intricate, constantly developing character arcs for Bilbo, Thorin and Gandalf in An Unexpected Journey, and yet the effect here is akin to those American dramas which reset their ensemble to the status quo for every new season, as the Hobbit and the King Under The Mountain continue to quarrel over their respective loyalties in the overarching quest despite having supposedly affirmed such ties at the conclusion of the previous film. In light of the impressive gradual progression made prior to the second outing, this initial retconning of what's come before proves extremely jarring, and thus limits the character arcs of many of the piece's key constructs who carry over from its predecessor. Freeman's Bilbo does recieve some light moral development in the forests of Mirkwood, the One Ring suddenly enabling a newfound brutality to emerge in his combat technique, and again, it's moments like these which the film craves in its aspiring for success and their absence which brings it just short of such an achievement.
As startling as it may be to assert, even Jackson's own directorial approach is waning in his fifth blockbuster adaptation of Tolkien's Middle-Earth. Broad, sweeping landscape shots are employed so frequently that Desolation cannot help but echo the same aesthetic beats as Fellowship, Towers, Return and Unexpected, only likely to go unnoticed by newcomers who find themselves unaware of their helm's trademark stylistic tropes. Even in those instances where the visual elements of the film differ to an extent, for example the increased implementation of fade-in shots within the Kingdom of the Wood-Elves, Jackson's attempts at innovation often come off as shoddy and rushed when ranked alongside his previous work, a Catch-22 situation coming about in the simultaneous detriment of fans' familiarity towards Jackson and the shortcomings of his allegedly refined camerawork. If King Kong was a compelling diversion (of sorts) from his fully-fledged fantastical epic, then the Australian director's return to his roots is a firm reestablishment of both the strengths and weaknesses of the works produced at those same roots.
Despite the final act's threatening to destabalize Desolation's pacing entirely, in its first and second stages the film remains engaging and unashamedly episodic. Ventures to the house of Beorn, the forests of Mirkwood and the humble abodes of Laketown are in order before Thorin "comes into his own", with the period spent in the latter locale housing an entertaining sequence of scenes starring Stephen Fry as the town's stubborn Master. Fry's construct isn't likely long for this world come the series' finale next December, unless Jackson elects to shift and expand the overburdened continuity of The Hobbit further still, so for now, let's make the most of a brief but nevertheless entertaining contribution from one of Britain's great thespians. Orlando Bloom is back as Legolas, son of Thranduil, yet he plays second fiddle to Evangeline Lily, whose newbie heroine Tauriel exuberates the kind of character which The Lord of the Rings' stoic female participants lacked with hindsight. Tauriel and her dwarf-elf love triangle are exclusive to this film adaptation of Tolkien's text, offering a surprising level of additional charm atop the sequel's core narrative.
Falling prey to sequilitis may have once seemed an impossible eventuality to Jackson, The Two Towers having met such acclaim upon its premiere- evidently, then, there really is a first time for everything. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug on occasion strives for greater heights than that of a shallow, repetitive action blockbuster, doing so clearly in its understated, dialogue-driven exchanges rather than its dangerously elongated setpieces, but these scenes are overshadowed extensively by the movie's thoroughly underwhelming final third. Although various plot arcs may have been put in place here so as to connect together the Hobbit trilogy with Jackson's other Middle-Earth efforts, the references and callbacks to The Lord of the Rings are generally forced and/or limited, the sense that a large degree of closure is necessitated in There and Back Again pervading much of this entry's second half. An Unexpected Journey was one of 2012's most pleasant surprises for this reviewer, yet its 2013 follow-up is the same only in the opposite regard, its failure to match the high standards of Jackson's prior Middle-Earth adaptations not so dissatisfying as Jackson's astounding decision to contradict much of his last effort's character development for the sake of rudimentary 'new' twists in the tale. Another 3-hour chapter there may still be for viewers to experience next year, but five films in, this reviewer can't help but feel already that we've been There and Back Again at least one time too many.