The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second in a trilogy of movies based on a 300-page book written by JRR Tolkien, and the fifth film set in Tolkien’s magical realm directed by Peter Jackson. The original Hobbit book is about an anxious fellow named Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman) who follows a troop of dwarves on their quest to regain their lost kingdom. The dwarf homeland is laden with gold, but it’s also the home of a gargantuan dragon known as Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). The dwarves are pursued by a race of brutish beings known as Orcs, who bear a grudge against the dwarf’s leader, Thorin (Richard Armitage). The new film crisscrosses the main storyline with two subplots involving a wizard’s quest and a sick dwarf who falls in love with an elf.
None of these storylines really go anywhere. For the majority of its two-and-a-half hour runtime, the movie feels like a small section of a larger story stretched thin. Which, of course, it is. Last year I wrote in my review of the first installment that Tolkien’s story would be better as one film, not three. I admit that I haven’t read the book on which this series is based, but my theory is confirmed endlessly throughout the latest movie. Desolation of Smaug feels tired and endless (and, thanks to a tacky cliffhanger, ending-less). For a film so long and bloated, it’s painfully unfulfilling.
To be fair, the movie is not entirely rotten. Desolation of Smaug does feel distinct, thanks to some new characters and locations (some invented exclusively for the film), which lessen the sense of déjà vu that plagued the previous movies. A handful of the new characters, such as Evangeline Lilly’s awesome elf warrior, are exciting additions. Most of the others feel like dull variations on the archetypes established in the other four Middle Earth movies.
Just like they were in the last film, Bilbo and company are besieged by endless threats during their journey, primarily the dumb, drooling Orcs. At this point the Orcs have become singularly uninteresting villains – they’re the slimy stormtroopers of this saga, more tiresome than threatening. The true villain of the movie is Smaug himself, the titular dragon. With his imposing size and his baritone voice, Smaug is initially an imposing threat, but as the conflict between him and the dwarves drags on, his menace seeps away.
After directing four other movies in Middle Earth, director Peter Jackson has started to seem like some kind of overzealous party host. He loves his work so much that he keeps pushing helping after helping onto his audience. No matter how delightful the main dish might have been the first few times, after a while we’re compelled to say, “Please, enough.”
Jackson fails to heed this warning. In retrospect, one more foray into Tolkien’s world might have been feasible, but the idea of another trilogy was pushing it too far. Jackson’s decision to splinter Tolkien’s original book into three films makes the individual components feel unfinished. It’s as though he’s offered us a cake but made us eat the flour, the dough and the frosting all separate and raw. Sadly, Desolation of Smaug leaves a bad taste in the mouth, despite its inevitable commercial success.