If the “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” was a bloated 2 hour and 49 minute slog, replete with dull merriment, songs and a distended prologue that threatened to put you to sleep, then in contrast, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is a brisk, engagingly paced 2 hours and 41 minutes which goes to show that length never matters—it’s how well your narrative engine runs.
And yet, conversely (and ironically), pace isn't always the salve either. To wit: the Peter Jackson-directed ‘Hobbit’ sequel might be the more vigorous, action-packed, darker and more (superficially) engaging version of the series thus far, but that doesn’t actually mean it’s a keeper of any sort. In fact, rather than calling it a sequel, 'The Desolation of Smaug' is better served described as an episode. And the episodic, middle chapter-itis that is currently hurting the modern-day tentpole sequel is fully evinced.
As facile and conventional as these ideas may be, ‘An Unexpected Journey’ was actually about something; a quest that touched upon friendship and fellowship (yep, all that stuff again) with Bilbo Baggins’ (Martin Freeman) main character arc involving earning the trust, respect and admiration of the initially disdainful, ornery and skeptical pack of thirteen dwarves he was traveling with (none of this is particularly revelatory, but occasionally it was touching in the same way these themes were in the ‘LOTR’ films). In contrast, ‘Smaug’ is about almost absolutely nothing. “The Further Adventures Of Chasing Gemstones That Mean Something Or Other To The Dwarves” might be a better suited subtitle as it is simply designed to keep this behemoth franchise moving forward and nothing more.
So while ‘Smaug’ has forward-momentum, and is chockablock with battles and evil conflicts (Orcs, giant spiders, a Necromancer, a pointless digression with a shape shifter that hates dwarves, suspicious and selfish elves), it’s actually the lesser and emptier of the two films (though I concede most audiences are probably not in need of much more and are likely going to enjoy this episode better).
But for those who desire more than just dynamic roller coasters, they might feel incredibly stymied. The strain of what was originally conceived as one story running the course of two movies, now stretched to its limits with a third picture, is deeply felt. The character arcs are negligible, and what exists instead are moods—mostly “dark” and “irritable” as ‘Smaug’ is certainly the most angsty of all the ‘LOTR/Hobbit’ films to date. Bilbo Baggins is beginning to get hooked in the throngs of early “precious” ring addiction, which makes him a bit of a dick, but that’s all about his story amounts to. Bilbo is hiding his ring smack compulsion from Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellen), but like far too many of the film's story elements, it's just a set up which will pay off in another episode and therefore holds no weight.
Dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is also being quite the dick, becoming power hungry and falling prey to the madness of greed that also destroyed his ancestors. As the quest progresses, Oakenshield becomes more ruthless and merciless, putting the importance of the gemstone above all other individuals in his company going so far as leaving injured dwarves behind (leave no dwarf left behind!). This is less of an arc and more of a thing that happens to Oakenshield, and again, something that will likely pay off or become resolved in episode three. None of it is remotely moving or even barely interesting on a character, story or thematic level.
However, if you want sizzle and action that’s even more violent than what we’ve seen in previous films, you’ve come to the right place, as ‘Smaug’ is more aggressive with its fight sequences and battles. One involved set-piece with dwarves in wine barrels spilling down a river while Orcs and elves chase them is positively thrilling, matching and surpassing the visually dazzling sequences in Steven Spielberg’s panoramic “The Adventures of Tintin.” Those who want “bad-ass” will be satisfied, but like the animated Spielberg picture, it all feels ultimately like a video game that’s neat to look at, but not especially meaningful in any way.
Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) serves much of the same function. He’s a visual effects spectacle to behold (a CGI marvel, really)—nasty, mean and a massive threat, but the character doesn’t add up to more than an infuriated bad guy who chases people around and burns their bums with fire because they’ve woken him up.
Elsewhere in the various tangents of this overlong story, nothing of merit is really taking place, other than the building blocks for 'There And Back Again.' The always unreliable Gandalf takes off from his friends for the umpteenth time to go investigate something or other (which is basically Gandalf’s modus operandi in every film; side quests! What a total flake). If you think some of the dwarves had fuck all to do in 'An Unexpected Journey,' you probably can’t even imagine the sheer boredom that must have set in for actors playing anyone not named Thorin, Balin (Ken Stott), Dwalin (Graham McTavish) and to a lesser degree Bofur (James Nesbitt). Sure, the handsome Kili (Aidan Turner) gets his own subplot centering on a deathly injury and a coquettish flirtation with Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel, but again (sigh) it’s all narrative teases that amounts to TUNE INTO THE NEXT EPISODE TO FIND OUT WHAT REALLY HAPPENS.
Assholes are in plentiful number in ‘Smaug,’ apart from the aforementioned cantankerous characters. Thranduil (Lee Pace), the selfish Elvin king is a racist/xenophobe and doesn’t care what happens to the rest of the world. His son Legolas (Orlando Bloom) follows his lead and is also basically a jerk (also there’s little reason for this beloved character to be back for this film other than to dynamically kick-ass like he did in the ‘LOTR’ films). Sure he’s got a thing for Tauriel and that’s going to eventually evolve him into the Elf we know and love, but … yep, next installment. (Luke Evans also co-stars as Aragorn, I mean, Bard the Bowman; he doesn't like the dwarves' gemstone-finding motives, but you'll learn more about that Christmas 2014.)
The one character of any substance in the picture is Tauriel. A fictionalized creation that's not in the book, if you’re looking for the barest of superficial character texture, you’re thanking the gods Peter Jackson and his co-writers invented her. Empathetic and at odds with her people’s cynical outlook on Middle Earth, Tauriel actually cares about people in need of help (including dwarves, the sworn rivals of elves), so it’s her internal conflict that gives the movie its only shallow of humanistic depth.
In case you need reminding, “Lord of the Rings” lays in the background, sometimes not all that subtly; the ring, Sauron, the evil that is about to engulf Middle Earth and a prequel-like sequence that should be called, “How Sting [Bilbo’s Sword] Got Her Groove.” The truth is, audiences are going to approve of this sequel. It’s entertaining, it’s engaging and it’s got thrills, but all at the expense and to the detriment of what stories, narrative and filmmaking should be about. See you at the next chapter. [C]