I think it’s fair to say that Peter Jackson’s return trip to Middle-Earth didn’t exactly capture the magic that the original Lord Of The Rings trilogy managed to cast over the world. A suprisingly tortured pre-production saw original Hobbit helmer Guillermo Del Toro leave the project leaving Jackson holding the bag as the proposed plan of two movies ballooned to three despite the difference in the sizes of Tolkien’s source material being the same as comparing a Hobbit to a Balrog.
Still, we were getting a trilogy whether we liked it or not and so as we settled down to watch An Unexpected Journey, it turned out to be a harmless, if weirdly breezy, addition to one of the greatest movie trilogies of all time. However, now that the introductions are out of the way and the Dwarf city of Erebor was now in sight, perhaps this second installment would light a much needed fire under proceedings.
The company of thirteen Dwarves that are attempting to reclaim their long conquered city from a slumbering dragon, have had something of a tough journey already. Joined by the wizard Gandalf and a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, they’ve had to contend with hungry trolls, an army of goblins and the malicious intentions of Azog the Defiler, a charming example of an orc that really wants to kill the party’s leader, Thorin Oakenshield, the rightful king of Erebor.
Still, so far they’ve survived, chiefly because Bilbo has stumbled across a secret, mysterious ring that grants invisibility to its wearer, but there’s still quite the way to go yet and their continuing journey will next take them to the door of fuzzy-backed were-bear, Beorn and then on through the giant-spider infested branches of Mirkwood forest.
However, its here that the company once again has to split as for the second time, Gandalf has to ditch his compardres in favour of a pesky side-quest that may hint of an evil force rising to threaten Middle-Earth and the belligerent band soon fall foul of the Elves who dwell there. However, after being introduced to the aggorant King Thanduil, his son Legolas and Tauriel, the a member of the Elven guard who catches the eye of young Dwarf Kili, Bilbo pulls another ace by freeing them and they manage to finally take refuge in the human settlement of Laketown by making a deal with Bard the Bowman, a rare straight arrow in an incredibly corrupt town.
It seems that their quest will soon reach its end as Laketown lies in the shadow of Erebor but before it is, Bilbo has to perform the task he was hired for to begin with: to enter the near-deserted city and locate the fabled Arkenstone without waking its sole occupant – a huge, egomaniacal dragon who goes by the name of Smaug.
While you could possibly forgive An Unexpected Journey for laying on the story a bit too thick for introductory purposes, The Desolation Of Smaug is where you really feel the desperate efforts of Jackson and fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipe Boyens to pad out the material as this second movie noticably carries more bloat than that dangling goiter of the Goblin King from the previous movie.
While initially pausing for a chat with skin-changer Beorn that seemingly has no real purpose at all, the Dwarves enter Mirkwood whose dense air and enchanted streams can not only get you high off your Dwarven tits, but also makes it hard to correctly determine the passing of time. It proves to be catching to the audience too, as the first half of the movie is made up of scenes that stubbonly go on for too long that belabour points that probably didn’t exist in the original novel. Take the Elves for example, long used as breaks in the action even in the original movie; here we get an expanded role for Lee Pace’s stern drama queen of a king, an invented role for a return of Orlando Bloom’s crowd pleasing Legolas and the entirely made up Tauriel who all diligently start creating extra drama on order to justify the hefty run time (heftier still if you favour the extended editions). As a result, the movie starts to noticably sag at the bits that should be diverting and fun – the much touted barrel escape, long cherished by Tolkien fans as a fan favorite moment, ends up being something of a watery slog as Jackson hurls orcs, elves, go-pro footage and some highly suspicious physics to make what should be a white-knuckle sequence into a glorified water park ride with slightly more lax safety features. I can just about buy Legolas leaping about like a weightless gazelle, but the sight of a rotund Bombur bouncing on enemies in his barrel like he’s racking up a mean bonus score in a Super Mario Brothers falls just on the wrong side of silly.
Elsewhere, Evangeline Lilly just about justifies her created role by whuppin’ serious orc butt and making her stirrings for Kili fit rather well in this fantastical sausage fest, but Gandalf’s semi-regular commute in order to rustle up an incredibly unnecessary sub-plot involving Necromancers, ruined temples and Thorin’s long lost father just feels like a redux of his capture by Saruman in Fellowship Of The Ring and goes further toward slowing everything down. The arrival at Laketown gets mercilessly bogged down too, with more baggage being unloaded into the plot with Bard’s long running animosity at the ludicrously corrupt, testicle chewing Master of Laketown and his tortured, dragon related past and the transition into the worlds of men were again given a far smoother transition in The Two Towers.
So, thank heavens for Smaug then, who ends up being every bit as magnificent and glorious as the egotistical fire-lizard himself would demand people call him. In fact, the long awaited moment where the horribly out-of-his-depth Bilbo comes face to snarling face of the pompous flame breather seems to be the first, true moment in the entire Hobbit trilogy where Jackson is truly having fun and by god does it show.
Gifting the chatty beast with a voice courtesy of a vocal chord ripping Benedict Cumberbatch and giving him the bottomless arrogance of your average TOWIE star, he’s a stunning creation as he slices through piles of gold coins like a great white unleashed into Scrooge McDuck’s money bin while shifting his jumbo jet-sized bulk as nimbly as a terrible, scaly crow. Its just a shame Jackson insists on repeatedly cutting away to uninteresting skirmishes between Legolas and bolt-headed hench-orc, Bolg as the film continues to build back story that simply doesn’t exist.
Dutifully commiting the same mistakes it predecessor did (the Dwarves themselves still mostly remain one dimensional punchlines – Bombur hasn’t even had line yet!), The Desolation Of Smaug manages to counteract its merciless straining of the material with arguably one of the greatest dragon scenes in cinema history.
Great dragon – shame it drags on….