Five films and 12 years into Peter Jackson’s cinematic renderings of Middle Earth, it’s easy to mistake familiarity and consistency for negative traits. So much work goes in to creating J.R.R. Tolkien’s magical realm that, despite four memorable adventures, it’s still tempting to write each subsequent visitation off as multi-million dollar recycling. In step with that conundrum, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug feels so well-worn that, for the first time in Jackson’s custody of these revered texts, the final product barely seems new. More troubling is that, also a first, the story feels a little thin, suggesting what many Jackson naysayers have said: The Hobbit could have been wrapped up in two films or (*gulp*) perhaps one.
Trouble begins with a ho-hum reentry into the story, an issue that was a non-factor in Jackson’s other middle trilogy film, The Two Towers. Flashing back to Gandalf (Ian McKellan) convincing presumed dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to unite his people and reclaim their homeland of Erebor, then picking up where An Unexpected Journey left off, it’s a clunky transition and one that takes longer than expected to smooth out. With Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) and his blood-thirsty orc army in pursuit, the dwarves, Gandalf, and hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) seek odd refuge in the home of skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), one of many new characters whose encounters seem underdeveloped. The world around them and the wonder that surely awaits remain exciting at this point, but the troublesome signs are sadly undeniable.
The Desolation of Smaug at last heats up with the appearance of the Wood-Elves, who rescue the party from giant spiders after Gandalf’s abrupt departure. No small part of this raised energy is the sight of Lord of the Rings hero Legolas (Orlando Bloom), though Jackson creation Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is just as skilled with bow and blade. Despite faltering with an odd flirtation between the elf beauty and dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), the film soon reaches the heights of its predecessors with an epic barrel battle down a raging river. As Bilbo and the dwarves bounce between land and water, teaming with the elves to take on their orc invaders, goosebumps are doled out in bulk and heroics are at a gleeful level.
Big moments like this, however, are rare. Many are far too short, such as Gandalf’s confrontation with the Necromancer (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, if you can call his sounds dialogue), identifiable more as effective teasers than well-rounded scenes. This dearth of grand action shifts the film’s attention to story and character, both of which are ill-prepared for such a spotlight. Little character development is evident and, the potential negative side effect of a middle film, much of the quest feels assumed. Bilbo is reduced to background, his lone discernible trait the ever-growing addiction to his newfound ring, and even though it’s supposed to, the dwarves’ quest comes off as more greedy than noble, making them tough sells. Elsewhere, the stretch at Erebor neighbor Laketown is another example of the production design crew flexing its collective muscles, but while smuggler Bard (Luke Evans) and the buffoonish town Master (Stephen Fry) are welcome character additions, there a sense of Jackson biding his time for no good reason.
Stranger still is the absence of memorable music. In An Unexpected Journey, “Song of the Lonely Mountain” nicely set the stage for the adventures to come and returned in a rousing instrumental revival in the film’s final battle. Though Howard Shore again supplies the score, there’s no such identifiable theme here and The Desolation of Smaug feels incomplete without one. The void is nearly forgotten in the wholly memorable sequence with the eponymous dragon (also voiced by Cumberbatch, though so digitally altered that his timbre is only occasionally recognizable), but becomes noticeable once more at the cliffhanger finale when the story seems like it should be ending instead of setting up another three hours.
As for the 48fps 3D, which few viewers or critics seem to be mentioning this year, Jackson & Co. appear to have worked out its kinks. Through some combination of being more accustomed to what in 2012 was unfamiliar technology, Jackson employing fewer quick character and camera movements (if there’s any blurring, it’s not distracting), and an overall streamlining of the technology, the visuals are a commendable accomplishment. If only the film itself was as remarkable…
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
That one elf is hot.