Last time out I found my ramble through Middle Earth a bit of a drag. Peter Jackson’s decision to extend the diminutive source material into three films of epic length left the first part of this protracted trilogy feeling like so much padding. There were moments of real class and much credit should go to Martin Freeman for keeping the story bubbling away in some of its more tedious moments, but too many scenes felt too long to justify the mammoth running time.
The Desolation of Smaug clocks in at a weighty 161 minutes so Jackson obviously has no intention of slimming down his finished product. The man obviously likes to take his time to tell a story, which is no bad thing in itself, although my worry that he doesn’t have enough narrative stuffing to fill his marathon series still stands.
Mercifully, Jackson seems to have addressed some of the pacing issues that blighted the first Hobbit movie. It barrels along (literally at one point) at a fair old lick from pretty much the word go, but it still gets bogged down at points. It’s the individual characters and narrative threads, rather than entire scenes that seem to outstay their welcome this time round.
Before dipping back into the journey to the Lonely Mountain, we’re transported back in time to observe Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and Gandalf the Grey (Ian Mckellen) enjoy a pre-quest pint in the Prancing Pony. The detour gives Jackson a chance to hint at hint at the wider world and the evils emerging within it, and reminds you that current trilogy is very much a prequel to Jackson’s ‘Rings’ opus.
From there we catch up with Bilbo, Gandalf and the band of Dwarves still on their perilous way to Erebor to reclaim their lost homeland and destroy Smaug, last and greatest of the dragons in Middle Earth. Essentially, and perhaps cynically, it’s a collection of action set-pieces loosely knitted together to form an ugly, hairy road movie set against the astounding natural beauty of the New Zealand countryside. The travellers romp along from one danger to another, from Orcs to giant spiders to malicious elves and back to Orcs again with the mountain just about in sight. A crueller man might dismiss it as little more than a bloated chase sequence, but it retains just about enough punch and humour to keep you interested. The rowdy quibbling and tomfoolery of An Unexpected Journey is largely expunged, replaced with a heightened sense of danger and a ton of giant arachnids, allowing Jackson to indulge in his horror roots.
As before the desperately teased-out narrative has its downsides. Jackson has taken the liberty of adding an entire elf/dwarf love triangle plot to the mix, presumably in an effort to give us a strong female character, or any female character at all. You can see why he’s done it, but in Jackson’s world it takes thirty minutes of screen time to walk to the end of your street for a pint of milk. Additional rogue characters at this stage only add to the occasional sense of fatigue. Orlando Bloom makes a much-publicised appearance as the pointy-eared Elvish princeling, Legolas, but it’s very difficult to see what he’s adding at this stage of the game. It’s nice to see Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel kick a sizeable amount of arse, but do we need 45 minutes of it?
The film’s final movement simultaneously provides a rollicking high-point and sums up Jackson’s inability to exercise restraint. Bilbo’s face-off with Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), which feels like it’s been coming for about five hours, is eye-poppingly immense, with Cumberbatch superbly, wondrously hypnotic as the garrulous, conceited dragon Smaug. After much balls-to-the-wall action, the film settles down for a joyously tense game of cat and mouse under the mountain between the lizard and the Hobbit. Then Jackson treats himself to a bolted-on set-piece and you groan that this could and should have been a bit better, improvements or not.
Distributor: Warner Bros
13th December 2013 (UK)
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Feeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Ian McKellan