The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Director Peter Jackson took a risk when he decided to break up his epic prequel to The Lord of the Rings in to three parts rather than the originally-planned two. After all, this was clearly never going to be a simple page-to-screen adaptation of The Hobbit, and it threatened to stretch an already slender plot beyond breaking point. Yet he just about succeeds in pulling it off. The Desolation of Smaug is an exciting adventure romp, providing two and a half hours of solid entertainment, while at the same time failing to come anywhere near the highs of The Two Towers, Jackson’s middle section of his earlier Rings cycle which, for many, was the best film in the entire trilogy.
Picking up indirectly from where he left off a year earlier, The Hobbit Part II begins with a prologue which sheds a little light on how Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) first came to set out on his quest to reclaim the mountain which was taken from his people by the dragon Smaug many years ago. From there it’s straight back in to the thick of it, as Gandalf (the majestic as ever Ian McKellen) leads Thorin and his posse of dwarves, along with Bilbo (Martin Freeman), towards the Lonely Mountain. The route involves tackling some giant spiders, escaping from a group of Woodland Elves (including an encounter with a certain familiar face from The Lord of the Rings), and a perilous stay in bustling Laketown. Finally the dwarves reach the mountain, but Smaug shows no inclination to give up the hoard of treasure he took possession of all those years ago.
Comparisons with The Lord of the Rings trilogy are a little unfair, given the stark difference in themes and content between prequel and sequel, despite their shared narrative connections. But Jackson and his team of writers seem intent on making this a prelude of equal weight and mass to that epic, which is a shame because they simply can’t hope to succeed. If you can put the earlier films out of mind and take The Hobbit on its own terms, then it’s a pleasingly colourful adventure tale. The story rattles along nicely, having got the slow start of An Unexpected Journey out of the way, and though the dwarves largely remain a group of indistinguishable and interchangeable faces, they still make for amusing company.
At least there’s no doubting that Jackson still has his action mojo. Among several highlights the barrel-riding sequence rates the highest, a marvellously choreographed rollercoaster ride that wouldn’t be out of place in an Indiana Jones flick. A chase sequence in Laketown also zips along quite nicely, with Orlando Bloom picking up exactly where he left off in The Return of the King. The climactic showdown with the titular dragon doesn't disappoint either: Benedict Cumberbatch juicily purrs his lines, and WETA have certainly outdone themselves in the design department - Smaug instantly qualifies as one of the all-time great dragons of cinema.
But overhanging it all is a sense of been here, done that, which isn’t helped by Gandalf disappearing for a long and seemingly pointless stretch in Mordor, home of the nefarious Sauron. By switching the focus away from Bilbo and the dwarves in favour of building up a prologue to the Rings saga, a critical lack of interest and momentum is lost, particularly as we all know what's going down in Mordor. The two story stands don't particularly gel either; one a light-hearted caper, the other a seemingly unconnected and irrelevant diversion that feels too much like reheated leftovers, unlike the fractured threads in The Two Towers which seemed to perfectly complement each other. It's fun while it lasts, but the jury is still out as to whether it really needed three separate episodes to tell this story.