It’s that time of year again. Getting taken back to Middle Earth by the trusted hand of Peter Jackson has become a sort of yuletide treasure in itself, such is the fondness with which we remember seeing his Tolkien adaptations at Christmas time. It’s an element of sweet nostalgia that served Jackson well last year with part one of this tale, An Unexpected Journey; a film which calmed the troubled minds of those of us fearful that The Hobbit really didn’t need to be told in three parts. That nine hours of this was going to feel, well, inexcusable.
An Unexpected Journey had its problems – torpor in the opening stretch, the poorly defined and largely interchangeable dwarves, it paled to the structurally identical Fellowship of the Ring – but overall it succeeded, and whetted the appetite for more. Here, a year later, we get more. A lot more.
The Desolation Of Smaug, running to 2 hours and 40 minutes in its theatrical cut, has a lot going for it. In every sense this feels like a bigger, grander picture. Aside from a brief moment with a fluttering rabble of butterflies, Desolation avoids the irksomely twee indulgences of the last film, pitching itself into much darker territory. Jackson has amped up the foreboding, sending Gandalf (Ian McKellen) off on his lonesome to start bridging the gap between these films and the Rings pictures.
When they come, the set-pieces here work terrifically, trumping anything we’ve seen this band of dwarves (and hobbit) tackle previously. An encounter in the woods with a cluster of giant spiders is a grim delight during which Jackson channels his horror roots superbly. It might frighten the little ones, but you can tell the director’s having a ball, and that enthusiasm translates to the audience.
Elsewhere, the more child-friendly escape from the Elven kingdom in Mirkwood is presented as a colourful and comedic romp; a theme park ride of fun and adventure which, while openly silly, showboats Jackson’s comfort as a master entertainer.
And yes, when we get to the Lonely Mountain there is Smaug, voiced by a tremulously processed Benedict Cumberbatch. The great dragon proves worthy of the wait. Smaug’s sinister, venal words drip like molten steel while the viewer is asked which is more impressive; the realisation of the dragon, or the detailed work visible in its lair of stolen treasure. Structurally it is here that Bilbo (Martin Freeman) steps clear of his companions for a captivating encounter. That it trumps the ‘riddles in the dark’ section of Journey is a testament to its success. This confrontation leads to the film’s thrilling final sequence, though there’s a sting in the tail, which I’ll come back to later.
So, when Desolation hits highs, it soars, and these moments are as good as anything Jackson has visualised for Middle Earth before. However, and this is a big however, for every instance in which Desolation improves upon Journey, it significantly underscores the problems already in place.
Chiefly, Jackson’s reasoning for stretching this story out into three epic instalments is rapidly losing any justification. Of all of his Middle Earth pictures so far, Desolation is the patchiest, hitting a stride and then floundering. The opening hour is pretty solid, picking up (more or less) right where we left off, following Bilbo and the dwarves through Mirkwood with a pack of orcs at their heels. Once the story reaches Laketown (and a distracting cameo from Stephen Fry), it is remarkable how quickly the momentum simply bottoms out of the film.
Jackson’s insistence on embellishment, of reliving past glories, has hurt his project. Desolation feels conspicuously like the middle of a story. The Two Towers evaded this sensation by having a clear narrative within its bridging duties, and also Rings‘ most impressive set piece. By comparison, Desolation feels often as though it is simply marking time. A scene at the top of the picture which flashes back to before Journey even began is endemic of this weary level of indulgence. Like so much here, it’s simply not necessary.
Speaking of not necessary, the inclusion of Legolas (Orlando Bloom, doing his best to play younger when he’s clearly older) adds nothing to the picture, save for allowing the character to showboat his already well-known precision with a bow and arrow. It’s fan service of the most egregious kind. See also the pointlessly brief inclusion of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett, collecting a pay cheque).
And then there’s the controversial new character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). There’s no doubt that she brings a welcome feminine presence to the story, Lilly plays the character comfortably, and she feels acceptably Tokien-esque… but she serves no purpose other than to shoehorn in a wholly extraneous love triangle subplot, as she takes a liking to one of the dwarves, affording Legolas a few frowns amid the evergreens. Not only does this splinter story feel unnecessary, it actively damages the film’s climax as Jackson is compelled to break the sustained tension underneath the mountain so we can catch up with Tauriel playing doctor in Laketown.
The dwarves continue to prove too multiple. Richard Armitage’s boring Thorin is afforded the most screen time so that he can sulk his way through the journey, and Aidan Turner’s Kili is foregrounded for the sake of the aforementioned love triangle, but aside from Ken Stott’s pleasingly bearded Balin there’s little to distinguish the remainder. Similarly there’s little to distinguish Luke Evans’ Bard, Desolation‘s only instance of ‘man-flesh’.
Part of what makes the scenes between Bilbo and Smaug all the more welcome is the opportunity it affords us to spend time with our supposed leading man. He is also what works best about the spider section and the barrel escape. Bilbo is an eminently watchable hero and Freeman is great in the part, but so often he’s simply there, one in a crowd.
So it pains me to say that, for all its dazzling production design, astonishing effects and sporadic pockets of excitement, The Desolation Of Smaug is the most problematic Middle Earth movie yet. What’s frustrating is the sense that these pitfalls could all have been avoided by simply telling the story told, instead of reaching for the same franchise glory that Rings achieved. Certainly it would’ve saved audiences from Desolation‘s cliffhanger finale, which was met with a collective groan during the screening I was part of. I may not be the only one suffering fatigue. There’s (just) enough good here for now, but next year’s There And Back Again has a mountainous task of its own; Jackson had better justify himself.