Even bearing in mind that this film was always going to be fighting the uphill battle of the “middle film” curse, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug still didn’t quite live up to expectations. Perhaps it’s because “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” — Peter Jackson’s last “middle film”, from The Lord of the Rings trilogy — generally avoided falling into this trap, but The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is largely underwhelming, even if it does at times manage to pull us back into Tolkien’s phenomenal world and ultimately lovable characters.
From the very beginning we’re thrown back into the heart of the action, with just a quick flashback to remind us of the plotline from the first film, and our beloved troop of heroes (having survived their encounter with the Orcs at the end of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey“) set off once more on their journey to the Lonely Mountain. The troubles they encounter along the way are multitudinous and each seemingly insurmountable, but Bilbo and Thorin, accompanied by 12 dwarves, push on through, determined to reach the Lonely Mountain before the sun sets on Durin’s Day.
The problem with taking us straight to the continuation of their journey, however, is that it provides no narrative arc, instead continuing along a flatline which takes far too long to make us feel involved. In the first film, there was the sense of an introduction, the development of a problem, the failures, the impossible feat and eventually, the unlikely success; in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we live in a cycle of obstacles that — in their multiplicity — begin to seem trivial and mere inconveniences. Even the characters aren’t really given a satisfying arc of development or interest, with Bilbo’s only use being when the others need saving, Thorin’s personality having fallen by the wayside in favor of ruthless determination, and the other dwarves being lumped into a group too often to inspire any emotions.
Nevertheless, in time the film begins to come into its own, regaining some of the features for which the original trilogy was so loved; from the fantastical legends to the backdrop of ancient mythology, Jackson remembers (within his chaotic production of pure blockbuster-style spectacle) to show us some of what made his films so perfect for Tolkien’s grandiose yet intricate style in the first place. This mostly begins with the introduction of the elves, and Evangeline Lilly’s role as Tauriel, a strong, talented elf who regales tales of the elves’ history to the dwarf Kili. Lilly is more than convincing as a graceful warrior, and Lee Pace equally shines as Legolas’ unlikeable father Thranduil.
Orlando Bloom’s iconic Legolas is somewhat disappointing in this latest installment, as is Ian McKellen’s brief involvement as Gandalf, but this is to be expected with the script focusing so much more on assailing us with erratic action scenes than portraying the complexity of these characters. All in all though, the cast are largely responsible for being able to draw us in repeatedly, from Martin Freeman’s simply adorable portrayal of a perpetually confused Bilbo, to Bard, a newly introduced man from Laketown, who wins us over with his simple yet fierce loyalty.
The quality of the CGI is also certainly to be commended, with the dragon Smaug being one of the most realistic yet beautifully shocking creatures to be created on screen yet, and for those who view the Hobbit trilogy as an opportunity to expand the Lord of the Rings universe, the stunning scenery of New Zealand and the new, truly spectacular set creations will not disappoint. Even within the various scenes of Orc-battling or giant spider-slaying that tend to pander to the thrill-seeking masses, we have to take a moment to appreciate the meticulous realization of Tolkien’s magical beasts.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug may therefore not be quite what everyone was hoping for, but it is probably what everyone expects. After “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” provided us with a real story to be told, putting to rest cynical ideas of where the franchise was headed, it seems a shame that said cynics are given fuel once more with a tale that seems driven by little other than a need to complete the franchise, and make as much money as possible whilst doing so. Regardless, Lord of the Ring fans are bound to watch it, and enjoy it to some extent, because this film is, in a twist of irony, exactly what Smaug accuses Bilbo of being to the dwarves — a means to an end.