There are a couple of reasons why the “Hobbit” movies, to date, have not had the impact that their “Lord of the Rings” predecessors did, despite having better special effects. The first one is obviously fatigue; Peter Jackson has now made what is for all intents and purposes the same movie five times. Five, times, and there is one more coming. The bigger problem, though, is this: five hours into the “Hobbit” story, the good guys have slaughtered hundreds upon hundreds of bad guys (both biped and arachnid), and they have not lost a single soldier. The lack of stakes for the characters, combined with the knowledge of which characters play a larger role in the subsequent “Lord of the Rings” books, undermines all attempts to establish a realistic sense of peril. Wait, Gandalf is in trouble? Whatever – he clearly lives to fight in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” so don’t sweat it.
This is unfortunate, because “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is quite entertaining despite the lopsidedness of the battles and needless “Clone Wars”-type political drama that director Peter Jackson foists upon the good people of Lake-town. A Tolkien-loving friend of ours swears that only five percent of the story in “Smaug” is in the original text. That is not nearly as much of a concern to us as the fact that no one dies in these movies.
Fresh from their escape from a pack of Orcs at the end of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” courtesy of a group of giant eagles, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen), and a band of dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) continue their journey to reclaim Thorin’s family’s homeland in the Lonely Mountain, inside which are untold riches and a fire-breathing dragon named Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) who claims both riches and fortress as his own. Gandalf leaves them at the edge of the forest of Mirkwood to do a fact-finding mission. Bilbo and the dwarves find themselves in trouble almost instantly, battling giant spiders in the forest, only to be captured by wood elves afterwards. Bilbo uses the invisibility powers of the Ring to slip past the elves and free the dwarves, but the Orcs are soon on their tail again. To escape the Orcs, the group makes a deal with shipman Bard (Luke Evans), who smuggles them into the human-populated Lake-town so they can fulfill the prophecy and take back what is theirs. Smaug, however, is not inclined to go quietly.
While the majority of the “Hobbit” films were shot in 2011 and 2012, Jackson did an additional 10 weeks of shooting earlier this year, which makes one wonder if that is when the fight scenes for “Smaug” were done. They are much livelier than anything that has happened in Middle Earth to date, thanks to a few “Matrix”-style wall-walking moves and a generous amount of trademark Sam Raimi no-look kill shots. They may be borrowed moves, but it feels fresh after the suffering through crane shot after crane shot in “An Unexpected Journey,” which briefly put this writer to sleep. There still isn’t any character development to speak of here, but there also isn’t a moment in the entire Jackson/Tolkien filmography as jaw-dropping as the barrel chase down the river while under fire from both elves and Orcs. The audience actually applauded when the scene ended. Still, character development is nice, too. With “Smaug,” you take the good with the bad.
Which makes the decision to “flesh out” (read: pad) the final part of the “Hobbit” story with the appendices Tolkien added to the end of “The Return of the King” all the more frustrating. The original plan was to split “The Hobbit” into two films, and based on the book alone, that makes perfect sense. Ah, but then they saw how much money the final books from the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series made when they were split in half, and so they thought, “Why settle for one giant pile of cash when we can have two?” Our preference: erase the Lake-town melodrama. Eliminate Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the ass-kicking elf and thief of Legolas’ heart. (Yep, Orlando Bloom’s back, in a story that did not originally involve him.) Now add the final part of the book that has yet to be covered and you have one hell of an ending to the Jackson/Tolkien story. Instead, they’re going to make us slog through the appendices, because everyone reads the appendices, right? “The Desolation of Smaug” is a lot of fun, but for the love of God, just end it already.