Unlike the individual Lord of the Rings films, which could reasonably stand on their own as self-contained stories in a larger dramatic arc, there’s no getting around the fact that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an obvious continuation of last year’s An Unexpected Journey. Since the two films share many of the same strengths and weaknesses, it seems appropriate to evaluate Smaug with a eye toward the progress (or lack thereof) made from one installment to the next. Consider the following more of a mid-term evaluation than a traditional review.
1. Tastes Great, Less Filling
When stretching a 300-page novel into an entire trilogy of nearly-three-hour films, the addition of filler is inevitable. This is less apparent in Smaug, partially because it’s almost 20 minutes shorter than Journey, but also because director Peter Jackson does a better job of identifying and sticking to a consistent narrative through-line: the quest of exiled dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his compatriots to enter the Lonely Mountain and reclaim a precious artifact with the help of shy hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). Still, everything with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) remains tangential, and his investigation into the return of an evil necromancer is a head-scratching distraction.
2. ‘Lord of the Rings’ Lite
In case you weren’t tipped off by the characters, locations, music, costumes, editing style, running time, title fonts, and shiny golden ring that turns mild-mannered hobbits into violent meth-head tweakers, Smaug does everything in its power to remind you that it’s just like those other movies you liked ten years ago. After hitting a nadir in the tacked-on first scene (featuring a rather conspicuous cameo), successive callbacks are mostly tasteful despite a lack of any good reason for being besides our existing familiarity with that “other” trilogy. At least this movie’s LOTR refugee, elf warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom), fits more naturally into the material when Bilbo, as does his female counterpart, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, portraying a character created specifically for the film), when Bilbo and friends find themselves imprisoned in the elf stronghold of Mirkwood. Their presence adds depth to Jackson’s pluralistic portrayal of the many races that coexist in Middle-Earth, but…
3. ‘The Hobbit’ or ‘The Dwarf’?
The most problematic aspect of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was its cavalier attitude toward the titular character, often giving the impression that his adventure was a side dish in an all-you-can-eat buffet of Tolkienania. This problem remains in The Desolation of Smaug and is exacerbated by the film’s turn to setpiece-heavy action storytelling. Few directors can orchestrate a spectacle like Jackson (just avoid seeing it in a high frame rate presentation), and it’s impossible to deny the kinetic pleasure of a daring barrel-aided escape through treacherous rapids and bloodthirsty orcs.
But Jackson pays even less attention to his nominal star this time out. The centerpiece ofJourney – a battle of wits between Bilbo and the feral, ring-obsessed Gollum – is replicated to a less satisfying degree as an extended tete-a-tete with the fearsome dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Instead, the focus is instead on rough-and-ready characters like Thorin, Legolas, and the sympathetic barge captain Bard (Luke Evans). One of the more valid criticisms of the otherwise miraculous Lord of the Rings trilogy was that Jackson turned a naif’s journey into a parade of badasses, a flaw that The Hobbit prequels throw into even sharper relief.
4. Et Tu, Bilbo?
Bilbo’s final line of dialogue in An Unexpected Journey – “I do believe the worst is behind us” – was famously and unfairly mocked by many a critic upon the film’s release. But The Desolation of Smaug is seriously tempting fate by again ending on a prophetic one-liner: “Oh no, what have I done?” It would be easy to poke fun at this coincidence, citing the fundamental disconnect between Jackson’s dauntless wide-angle approach to adapting a quirky, picaresque, single-character-driven novel. But I won’t. After all, Jackson still has one more movie to bring his grade up.