Review: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

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Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriters: Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro & Fran Walsh
Based on The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom & Evangeline Lilly
Runtime: 161 min // Certificate: 12a

The critical reaction to The Desolation of Smaug, part two of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, has been positive, particularly compared to the reception that An Unexpected Journey received, yet a hushed concern still lingers in the background; how can this small children’s story go on for so bloody long?

And therein lays the problem with this film which, despite the hype, is neither better nor worse than its predecessor, rather it’s just different. The same issues remain – that it’s far too long, unfocussed and rambling – yet this time they’re further hampered by Jackson’s inability to juggle the numerous threads (few of which are present in Tolkien’s novel) that he has created without the whole thing feeling messy. Where improvements are made, they are accompanied by Jackson’s indulgences becoming ever more grating, and so as much as I want to laud the film for its action set pieces, its more confident performances and its grand ambition, I can’t help but find it all incredibly irritating.

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Part two of the quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch and designed, apparently, by an overenthusiastic child with too much CGI on his/her hands…) introduces so many new elements to the tale – many of which are pointless and add nothing to the overall story – that it’s impossible to invest in any of them fully. The central quest meanders along, interspersed with the occasional chase or fight sequence, while Bilbo (Freeman) – the apparent focus of the film – spends much of his time doing absolutely nothing. For a film called The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, it is quite amazing both how little we see of the Hobbit and how long it takes us to get to Smaug…

For what it’s worth, the film is at its best when it follows the Dwarves quest. It’s what happens alongside all of this that shows up Jackson’s weaknesses as both a director and a writer. The love-triangle between Legolas (Bloom), Tauriel (Lilly) and Kili (Aidan Turner) is simply turgid, while Gandalf’s (McKellen) quest to prevent the “return of our enemy” is a wasted opportunity. I imagine the reason that Gandalf’s quest feels so poorly fleshed is because it will form the bulk of the final film but in this particular chapter it relies far too much on fan service and the audience’s knowledge of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, thus it comes across as lazy. Bilbo’s slow, creeping obsession with the ring – one of the most interesting threads of the story – is criminally underplayed, while the internal conflict amongst the dwarves goes completely unexplored. There are – as with the first film – moments of brilliance (the barrel sequence is a real highlight, as is the cliff-hanger) but they are once again taken to such an extreme that the effect is utterly draining.

However, this isn’t to say that The Desolation of Smaug isn’t entertaining. On a visual level, Jackson’s Middle Earth is mesmerising. The attention to detail is brilliant and a more devoted fan of Tolkien than I could spend days analysing it in all of its fanboy glory. There is a lot more action this time around (though even the battle scenes are dull when they go on too long…) and you do feel a palpable sense of dread as the film creeps along to the confrontation with Smaug. The performances are much better, the visuals (with the exception of Smaug) are less cartoonish and the plot does go somewhere… eventually.

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Alas, no matter what else happens, one can’t escape the fact that the script is just abysmal. Jackson’s attempts to make the film darker than the novel are valiant but they fall flat on their arse when the dialogue is still so childish. The lame humour, the inoffensive confrontations and the immature love story don’t sit comfortably with of what Jackson is trying to do with the material, which is to make it bleaker and more unnerving. The initial confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug – which is what we’ve spent well over 4 hours working towards – is a total disappointment because the dialogue is so clunky. Cumberbatch’s voice performance is hammy to the nth degree, which doesn’t help matters at all, but it doesn’t matter when the script is so terrible anyway. After such a long journey, the whole sequence under the mountain is a terrible waste of time. The battle with Smaug is thrilling, don’t get me wrong, but the one-to-one between Bilbo and the dragon is shambolic and a genuine chore to sit through.

Ultimately, though The Desolation of Smaug is a much quicker and more confident than its predecessor, it falls into brand new pitfalls that are – at least in part – caused by Jackson’s grand ambition. The increase in pace means that the film moves from one set-piece to the next with even less character development than in the first film, while the multiple plot threads make for a story that is still simple to follow but becomes impossible to care about. There is simply too much going on, yet none of it really mattered. Stuff happens – lots of stuff happens – but it all feels so inconsequential because there’s always another disaster / battle just around the corner.

Those who enjoyed the first film will probably enjoy this one too, while those who hated it should probably stay away. If, like me, you found part one frustrating then chances are you’ll be just as dismayed by part two, albeit for different reasons. I just hope chapter three brings things to a decent conclusion, though I won’t hold my breath…