It turns out The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a pretty terrible name for Peter Jackson's latest trek into the world and works of J.R.R. Tolkien. While the book on which it's based is centered on the story of the titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the movie barely makes time for him and his arc from reluctant adventurer to epic hero at all. Instead, Jackson and his screenwriters Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Guillermo del Toro smother Bilbo's story by puffing up the narrative through Tolkien's 125 pages of appendices and characters of their own creation. The results play out more like miniseries than a movie, and without the satisfaction of a finale episode that properly pays off on the subtitle.
In this sequel to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the dwarf band led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is closer than ever to the Lonely Mountain, where the horrible fire-breathing dragon Smaug lies. Once they reach it, Bilbo (Martin Freeman), the group's lone hobbit and purported burglar, will have to sneak inside and steal a gem that will help Thorin regain his throne. But along the way, this motley crew of pint-sized warriors must face off against vengeance-fueled orcs, a fearsome shape-shifter, giant bloodthirsty spiders, and a kingdom of condescending wood elves.
Like The Lord of the Rings movies that preceded it, the sheer scale of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a joy to behold. Once more the natural beauty of New Zealand is awe-inspiring, and the CGI-created worlds and beasts are captivating. Plus, the action sequences are tons of fun, full of imaginative stunts, character-based humor, and plenty of thrills. It's an absolute delight to see an arrogant, dwarf-hating Legolas (Orlando Bloom) use the grumbling little men as little more than stepping stools as he leaps onto their heads to fire an arrow at marauding orcs. And the spider scene--whose Rankin and Bass version still haunts me--is perfectly chilling and enthralling in live-action, punctuated by creepy sound design and a terrific blending of practical and visual effects.
However, some of these moments as well as some of the establishing shots of grand virtually created set pieces have a distractingly artificial feel. Several of the sets lack the texture that has been meticulously designed into costumes and real-life characters' beards. Some of the battle scenes clearly feature CGI stand-ins over stuntmen, given away by the too fluid motions they manage as they whip about in physic-defying motions. Disappointingly, these moments look less like a top-notch Hollywood blockbuster, and more like an excellent video game.
To fill out the hefty running time of 161 minutes, Jackson adds in extra battle scenes to the story. While some are welcomed and wonderfully entertaining, others strain credulity as these dwarves get through bloody battles with mostly minor scuffs--even when they are totally unarmed. Personally, it reminded me of the Jar Jar Binks battle scene in Star Wars: Episode I where he trips on a droid, setting of its gun at random, yet only takes down his enemies and not the allies fighting in close contact with them. Which is to say, I felt that even in a world of fantasy, Jackson is pushing it.
While I greatly enjoyed the first half of the film, it begins to screech to a halt as we reach the tacked on Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) subplot. Created just for the movie, she's a welcomed addition in the fight scenes, proving a fierce and deadly warrior. But she's quickly (and frustratingly) relegated to a clichéd romance subplot that is totally unneeded and just serves to slow the story down. This to me speaks to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug's biggest issue: it's not Bilbo's movie. Or at the very least, not his alone. It's also Thorin's who must face up to the destiny that lies before him. It's also Gandalf's who must abandon the dwarves to seek out a terrible threat elsewhere. It's also Bard the Bowman's, a Lake Town resident who is a rebel in a brewing class conflict between the haves and have-nots. It's also Tauriel's, who finds herself crushing on the only remotely handsome dwarf (Aidan Turner). And so on and so on.
All this makes the film feel bloated and meandering. Bilbo's scenes end up of feeling oddly out of place, recognizing him as the franchise's protagonist, but only briefly before moving on to another story altogether. This kind of leaping about makes sense as a miniseries focused on a group rather than an individual, but as a movie it's ultimately unsatisfying to divide the focus this much. Having now seen two thirds of Jackson's expanded Hobbit, I'm not convinced that his idea of more is better. While there's plenty of fun to be had with this feature, much of it could have easily been left on the cutting room floor. And frankly I wish it had been.