Another Christmas, another trip back to Middle Earth; it’s like the early 2000’s all over again. For the middle chapter of this Hobbit trilogy, we follow Bilbo and the company of dwarves as they make their way to the Lonely Mountain with only the small matter of a dragon blocking the way.
It’s always good to be back in this universe, as the audience are mostly familiar with the setup and the world; it allows you to hit the ground running especially with the first film out of the way as well. Yet, The Desolation of Smaug feels very much like a middle film, one without a beginning or an end. It’s just sort of…there. A stopgap before the grand finale. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to love, but the film does feel like it’s resting on its laurels for most of the (lengthy) runtime. On it’s own Desolation feels less like a cohesive film and more a collection of the bits left on the cutting room floor thrown back in to pad it out to three films instead of the originally planned two; to quote Bilbo the film feels like ‘butter scraped over too much bread.’
Yet despite the extended runtime a lot of the material one suspects would not have originally been included is fairly inconsequential at best and boring at worst. The entire Laketown subplot never gets out of first gear (admittedly, these could just be plot strands to be picked up in film three, There and Back Again, but here it proves unsatisfactory, as does Gandalf’s trip to see the Necromancer), there’s hardly any character growth with the cast simply blundering from one set piece to another, and the dwarves – aside from Thorin and Kili – are still basically extras in their own film which makes it very hard to care for any of them. Thorin especially is not a very sympathetic character and there’s nothing in Richard Armitage’s performance that makes him someone to root for. He’s no Aragorn, despite the film trying very hard to make him one. He’s not even Boromir.
Thank goodness then for Peter Jackson’s mastery of the action sequence. The standout being the barrel escape which is inventive, tense, full of wit and invention and genuinely perilous. It’s more kiddie friendly and comedic than anything in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (amidst all the decapitations and violence) but Peter Jackson really makes use of the all the tools in his arsenal to create a fantastically entertaining scene. And he also retains some of that anarchic spirit during a trek through a hallucinogenic forest as well as generating some decent scares during a battle with some giant spiders. Orlando Bloom’s Legolas returns – and happily has learned to act in the ten years between trilogies – and brings with him fellow elf, Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly, a character not in the book but written to add some femininity to a picture in danger of becoming a boy’s only adventure. She’s a breath of fresh air, who unfortunately gets lumbered with an unconvincing love triangle subplot between Legolas and Aidan Turner’s Kili/‘Sexy Dwarf’ but she’s by far the most interesting character in the film.
The final act though is the film’s true saving grace, with a combination of marvellous CGI on Smaug, a thoroughly menacing vocal performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, and a chance for Martin Freeman to do some honest-to-goodness acting during a genuinely thrilling final sequence, culminating in an audacious final moment that’ll have you screaming at the screen. The whole sequence reminds you that these films are more than just hollow spectacle, but makes you wish the whole film had been as good as its final half hour.
A film in need of a ruthless edit, but still a highly enjoyable return visit to Middle Earth. It’s no Two Towers, but it’s not Attack of the Clones either.
Review by Jonathan Cardwell.
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