“Two more chances to get it right,” I concluded my review of last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Make that one more chance. The good news: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second part of Peter Jackson’s trilogy devoted to one volume of Tolkien, runs 161 minutes, making it the shortest of his five Lord of the Rings-related films to date. The bad: About five minutes are dedicated to characterization, the rest to the kind of empty spectacle Jackson’s detractors say he indulges in. As someone who has defended the filmmaker in the past, I see their point.
Sometimes the overproduction connects. There’s a shivery scene where Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his dwarf companions, en route to the Lonely Mountain and their confrontation with the squatter dragon Smaug, are trapped in a forest a-crawl with giant spiders, effective if a little reminiscent of the pit sequence in Jackson’s King Kong remake (2005). Still en route, the characters escape from treacherous Orcs via log flume, which was fun to watch in Real 3D. (I saw no, and see no, reason to seek it out in videogame-y HFR 3D this time.) Still en route…well, you see part of the problem, it takes forever for anyone to get anywhere in The Hobbit, as if the quest were happening in real time. That river chase should zip by; instead it’s broken into two or three parts, forcing the film to regain momentum when it should be at its most fleet.
The larger problem is that there’s no one fun to hang out with. Freeman, usually a resourceful actor when surrounded by more flamboyant types (as on his TV successes, The Office and Sherlock), fades into the film’s dull beige, gray, and black color schemes, and the movie forgets about Bilbo for too-long stretches to concentrate on even less distinctive characters. Can anyone tell any of the dwarves apart? What’s Stephen Fry doing here under heavy makeup? At least no one sings. Giving Legolas (Orlando Bloom, looking a bit digitalized to make him younger than his Rings characterization) a female counterpart (Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel) doesn’t spice things up when all they do together is fight wave after wave after wave of Orcs. I felt sorry for all those poor dead Orcs after 300 or so were bumped off by the second hour–is there an Orc Guild I can complain to on their behalf? In any case the movie, and this cycle, which splits off Ian McKellen’s Gandalf from the group before long, desperately needs flesh-and-blood, conflicted, faceted characters, like Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn and Sean Bean’s Boromir, to maintain our interest. I doubt we’re going to get any, but I guarantee many more Orcs are destined to be mulched and pulverized in the final installment.
And what of the desolate Smaug, who we finally meet in the final hour? He’s impressive, rising up from the coins and treasure in the Lonely Mountain and giving Bilbo and his companions a hard time as he slithers about its nooks and crannies. “Cumberbitches” will, however, be annoyed that their beloved Benedict has had his voice processed to make him sound more dragon-y, and fans of dragon movies expecting the greatest dragon movie ever will still rank this behind the punchier, scarier, and vastly more engaging Dragonslayer, filmed without CGI and 3D in primitive 1981.
There’s no point in me going on. An $80 million or so gross this weekend, and another billion dollar haul worldwide, are secure. If you liked the first one, have at it; it’s all of a piece, “tonally consistent,” as they say. But if you loved the Lord of the Rings trilogy, steel yourself for another only middling return to Middle Earth.[youtube width=”602″ height=”350″ video_id=”lfflhfn1W-o”]