Peter Jackson is an interesting film maker. A background in indie films, specifically indie horror films, he was raised to the top of the A-List when he successfully pulled off adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy to the big screen. Those movies are not perfect by any stretch but the books were so rich and full of detail that the theatrical releases actually felt like they were lacking despite being a combined length of over 9 hours.
Now we’re on the second part of his adaptation of The Hobbit, the book that preceded the epic trilogy that was The Lord of the Rings. That book however is actually pretty short and while it has enough detail to serve the story’s purpose it has nowhere near the depth or scope that the later trilogy does.
Herein lies one of the problems with The Desolation of Smaug: You can’t turn a 300 page book into 9 hours of movie without padding the story, and Jackson has padded the story so much, and messed up the pacing so much, that while I don’t think it’s a bad film I also don’t think it’s a great one.
Now don’t get too excited, there are lots of good things going on in The Desolation of Smaug. There are fun characters, there are some pretty stunning action sequences, and there’s probably the best dragon ever realized on screen.
However all this seems to come at the expense of the pacing of the film, which happens in fits and starts.
The film begins with an actually pretty interesting prologue before jumping right back where the last film left off. Bilbo and company have just been dropped off by the eagles but there are still orcs on their tail. They manage to escape to the house of Beorn, a skinchanger who can take the form of a massive bear. They spend the night and then leave to a forest where they meet spiders and woodland elves. They escape the elves to make it to Lake Town, and eventually The Lonely Mountain, the dwarves former home.
You’d think I just spoiled the entier movie for you (but if you haven’t read the book I ask: did you never have a childhood?) but really I haven’t. The movie is nearly 3 hours long and what I just described takes up only nearly half of it. This section of the story contains some of the great scenes in the book. Case in point the house of Beorn, which is maybe a 5 minute interlude between being chased from the mountains by orcs and being chased through the woods by spiders.
Further, when they are taken to the king of the Elves (played by Lee Pace) there is maybe ten minutes of talking and being imprisoned before a 25 minute escape down the river.
You can see what I mean about pacing here. The movie stops at the iconic bits of the story just long enough to get them done and then it’s on to the next chase. The chases are actually pretty exciting –the escape down the river being a great example of this– however at no time did I ever feel any real tension that the characters were in any real peril. Between weapons and characters showing up just at the right moment (and manifesting from the ether when need be) it really just feels a lot like a game of “what’s the most creative way we can kill the next bad guy?”
That is to say that Jackson spends a lot of time and energy trying to make every chase sequence the chase sequence and every fight scene the fight scene. It’s not until they reach The Lonely Mountain and we meet Smaug that things actually get interesting and while the chase scene –completely made up by Jackson unless there’s a whole sequence of the book missing from my memory– suffers from the same problems Smaug the dragon is actually compelling and threatening enough that I didn’t care.
While all of this is going on Gandalf is off on his own quest investigating
the set up for the Lord of the Rings_ the rise of a greater evil. This story is actually another problem with the movie for me because while it’s interesting it also serves no purpose for this movie. It’s just world building for _The Lord of the Rings an that’s a world that no longer needs to be built and it just came off to me as Jackson and company trying way too hard to remind me that the world we are is the world he already won an Oscar for.
There are plenty of winks and nods to the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the main story as well, so many that the film actually kind of feels like a greatest hits real. So many times it seems to say “Hey, remember the other trilogy? Do you? Here’s another obvious reference just in case you forgot.”
A lot of this is in the form of repeated dialogue but it’s also in the form of Legolas, an elf who was part of the Fellowship of the Ring who wasn’t actually in The Hobbit. I know Peter Jackson has actually understandable explanations to include him but other than a few hero moments there’s no reason to include him anywhere near as much as he is, not to mention the completely original character Jackson has added with Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) or the love triangle she creates for, as far as I can tell, no real reason.
Like I say though there are things to enjoy, not the least of which are Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin. Freeman is pretty much the perfect choice for Bilbo and I remain as convinced as ever that these films will do for Armitage what Lord of the Rings did for Viggo Mortensen. Benedict Cumberbatch may have been the perfect choice for the voice of Smaug as well. His voice is deep and threatening while also being sophisticated and intelligent and as a result the interactions between Smaug and Bilbo are some of the best in the film.
Effects wise I am not sure that to tell you. I saw the film in 48fsp HFR and 3D and while I still agree with what I said nearly a year ago about frame rates, namely that I’m excited to see where the technology goes, HFR makes things like digital compositing and green screen shots painfully obvious and there is so much more of it in this one than there was in An Unexpected Journey that it was all the more distracting. I will need to see the film again in 24fps (and 2D) to really compare but I have a feeling that it might be better with the slower frame rate hiding some of the seams.
All in all The Desolation of Smaug isn’t a bad film. Rousing chases and an amazingly realized dragon make it worth seeing, especially if you’re either a fan of Tolkien’s work or have seen the previous movie. It’s not a great film either though and I’m not even convinced it’s a good one. It’s just OK; and that’s a little disappointing.