Genre: Adventure, Fantasy
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt
An Unexpected Journey for Peter Jackson was just that – the first part of a trilogy that he never wanted to direct, and more importantly one that should never have even been a trilogy. Despite rousing performances and some of the supreme technical work that made The Lord of the Rings shine (this time CG aside), the prequel riddled around packing its bags. One year later and boosted by a devilish dragon and some spectacular set pieces The Desolation of Smaug presents a horde of treasure with gold statues, arkenstones and rings but none, regrettably, as alluring or as powerful as the One.
Opening on a Hitchcockian cameo from the carrot-eating director, the film shows its colours from the off. As Thorin (a grizzly Richard Armitage) and Gandalf (a reliable Ian McKellen) discuss the ramifications of the journey to Erebor, the film is contextualized against the political complexities of middle-Earth. Building no doubt to a stirring climactic fight in next year’s There And Back Again, the faction lines are drawn giving way to some fantastic action sequences even amidst the unshakable scent of middle-film syndrome.
In the thrilling barrel sequence for instance, the interplay between wood-Elves, Dwarves and Orcs as each sets about their own targets, is visually spectacular as well as dramatically engaging. It’s everything a modern action sequence should be and there’s even the bold inclusion of some GoPro-like camerawork from inside the barrels which anchors the sequence in some reality. However as Bombur (who can now add a line of dialogue to his fellowship credentials) flies off the side of the river dispatching Orcs along the way, then lands on his feet and pushes his arms through the barrel to reveal two weapons – it all becomes somewhat ineffable and it is easy to imagine Tolkein spinning violently in his barrel. While Legolas’, who is a welcome inclusion, scenes in Rings were a cheeky finesse to some of the grittier battles, their tone here was diluted throughout every action scene and the result, in its repetition, becomes wearying.
Much of the film feels the same – Beorn for instance shows a great example of why Tom Bombadil was absent from Fellowship of the Ring. The characters find refuge with him early on and they all exchange some character development notes but there isn’t anything more to say about him. Moments later the quest continues again and Beorn is left on the sidelines, unexplored and, what feels like, undeveloped.
At times it even feels like Jackson has released the Extended Edition early. A rough cut without much thought or focus – a point justified by Martin Freeman’s horrendously slight screen time. The comic moments he does have – such as when he wrestles with a trap door – are the highlights of the film and his transition from recluse to adventurer feels like the trilogy’s only point of engagement. It is – after all the false grandeur of the broody tagline – a film called The Hobbit and it’s a pity that we don’t see enough of him.
The same can be said for Gandalf who is off pursuing the villainous Necromancer. Here it should be a joy to see Gandalf finally do some magic, he is a wizard after all, yet as he battles with a horrendous cloud of black CG smoke it’s again an unbelievably ill-thought sequence. And as the camera plunges infinitely through the Eye of Sauron there seems the sense that the whole scene was cut in an afternoon and like the needless villain Azog, it’s a poorly rendered inclusion that attracts those ugly comparisons to George Lucas’ millennial mistakes.
Unlike those films, Smaug has its moments however. In the epic runtime the pace finally gathers as the dwarves barter with Bard the bowman and a confident Luke Evans. Stephen Fry and his not-Wormtongue sidekick provide suitably slimey comic relief but again, in a bloated series of films, it’s a shame that you still desire more. Benedict Cumberbatch as the stupendous dragon is a magnificent presence however, and it’s a Gollum-like marvel that such a character can be rendered in a computer which makes those other ugly sequences more unbelievable in their inclusion. The shiny I Am Legend-esque rendering of Azog is a different kind of marvel in itself. Meanwhile it remains a relief that some of the broader moments from the first film are absent; Sylvester McCoy’s watership sinking well and truly down.
Throughout Smaug there is that middle-film feeling that Two Towers knowingly sidestepped. With a beginning 90 minutes that easily belong to the previous film and a second half that launches the quest to a new chapter, there appears no reason other than pure indulgence that Jackson extended the films to a trilogy. Whilst some moments in Unexpected Journey could be forgiven, perhaps because of pure nostalgia, in Smaug there are moments that feel so horrendously tacked on and rendered that those Rings-like dramatic notes seem unjustified. None so more than as the film ends and as Smaug bursts free of the mountain, glistening in the night. Bilbo’s lament “What have we done?” begs the anti-climactic answer “not much really”.
When the actual Extended Edition is inevitably released, perhaps Jackson should wield an axe to this overstuffed trilogy and recognize that while possessing the dizzying length and tremendous production design as his Oscar-winning epics, these films are oddly light on what gave them their magic in the first place. There are glimmers of the taut emotional drama and the sweeping scale but they compete against the film’s own inherent computer game and while admittedly fun, they feel like an uncomfortably wry copout. Jackson’s bad taste lost in the mix, perhaps due to the divide into triptych, these films feel like the rough cut dailies that may one day be mercifully whittled down. However in the light of next year’s lengthy conclusion, they feel like three separate acts split apart across the desolation.