A little over eleven years ago, on the eve of the theatrical release of The Two Towers, the second leg of director Peter Jackson's epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, I was jittery with anticipation. By then I'd watched the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, an embarrassingly high number of times in the theater, and a few more times on home vid. And as the clock wound down to the saga's continuation, I. Could. Not. Wait. I tell that story partly to reminisce, but mainly to mark a contrast with my state of mind vis-a-vis Jackson's current Hobbit trilogy, in whose release history we now find ourselves at a comparable point.
I had an enjoyable enough experience with part one, An Unexpected Journey, last year, but I pretty much left it in the theater after I watched. It didn't stay with me past that, and I didn't go out of my way to seek out a repeat viewing. More perplexing (to me, anyway) was how, as the impending screening for the follow-up, The Desolation of Smaug, bore down on me, I found myself greeting it not with the anticipation and expectation I felt for The Two Towers but rather the fatigue-in-advance that comes from the thought of sitting through a three hour story with no beginning and no end.
And that's ultimately what The Desolation of Smaug is. No beginning, no end, lots of middle. To that end, I suspect one's affinity for this installment will correlate directly with how much of a mark the preceding film made. Beginning with a flashback (within the flashback that is the entire trilogy), we learn how Ian McKellen's wizard Gandalf first crossed paths with princely dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) in the lead-up to this saga's central quest, retrieving a lost gem that rightly belongs to the dwarves from the dragon Smaug. From there, we rejoin our band of dwarf questers, and the titular Hobbit whose story we're ostensibly following, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman).
Whether outrunning giant wolves, outwitting giant spiders, or outthinking slightly tall elves, Smaug is essentially one long chase sequence punctuated by conversations as it ticks down to the title's promised conflagration. In that sense it marks a slight step up from its predecessor, given that An Unexpected Journey was saddled with a treasure trove of exposition and explication that's largely unnecessary here. And so we get an experience that, at it's best, engages on a visual, sensory level. The returning cast is still great, and it's also nice to see Orlando Bloom return as his Rings hero Legolas, the elf archer (although his role here is largely extraneous).
Where the film falls down, then, is exactly where the first one did. It's simply too much time spent servicing too little. I've made note before of how Tolkien's original tome is a breezy 300-page confection, and the miscalculation the adaptation makes, under Jackson's auspices, is in trying to take those 300 pages and spin them into a nine-hour behemoth. Now, part of this is simply the seams between "art" and "commerce" showing through. The various stakeholders in the Hobbit screen rights fought the equivalent of their own "War of the Ring" to see the book brought to screen, so they were damn sure going to squeeze every last dollar out of it they could.
And why make one flick, or even two, when you can just as well make three movies, and three times the coin? After all, there were three hugely-successful Lord of the Rings movies, right? Naturally. But what's seemingly been forgotten is that, for as mammoth a production as the Rings trilogy was, and for as long as the individual entries ended up being, each movie adapted one book. Only one book. Thus, in the process of spinning prose into celluloid, lots of little digressions and details got left out in service of the all-important need to maintain the pace and propulsion necessary to make a worthwhile filmic experience.
With the Hobbit movie series, on the other hand, we have an entirely different set of problems brought about by the decision (command?) to expand Tolkien's relatively lightweight book outward times three. Put simply, there's simply not enough story to make the process work feasibly. And so Jackson, et al, have been forced to forage through the various appendices, sidelights, assumptions, and implications that Tolkien peppered his various Middle Earth works with to pad, pad, pad out the running time and get us to that preordained 160-minute mark (with 160 more yet to come twelve months hence).
Gandalf goes off and has a separate adventure, largely unconnected from the main narrative, meant mainly to lay pipe for the Rings cycle. Our heroes (most of whom I still can't tell apart) have an extended stopover with the elves. And by the time we get to Bilbo's tete-a-tete with Smaug (voiced, appropriately enough, by Freeman's Sherlock co-star, Benedict Cumberbatch), it starts feeling like the filmmakers have tossed in every piece of Tolkien arcana they could to push it as far into the film as possible. Now, if you're a fan of this world and want simply to luxuriate in its various intricacies, then that's fine. But for anyone else, The Desolation of Smaug can't help but feel like a bit of a desolate slog. C+