Director: Peter Jackson
Runtime: 161 minutes
Many argue that The Two Towers, the second of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is the strongest film in an outstanding cinematic trio. Middle installments come burdened with moving pieces and are unable to finish with a bang. At least, they're not allowed to finish with as big of a bang as the final entry, which gets the benefit of wrapping it all up. The Two Towers, however, overcame that by creating its own epic ending, yet still making it clear the obstacles that lay ahead in The Return of the King. It was a spectacle having its cake and eating it too, in the very best way. That same success, sadly, is nowhere to be found in The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson's middle chapter of this three-part adaptation of Tolkien's The Hobbit. Instead, it's the film that many likely feared Jackson's original trilogy would be: bloated, emotionally hollow, and suffocated by visual effects.
Whatever flaws one can find with last year's An Unexpected Journey (and there are many), that at least had a proper beginning. Desolation kicks off with an unnecessary flashback to dole out catch-up details, and then hits the ground running. Unfortunately, the film's feet are made of glass. The mix of hand-crafted and computer-generated sets and models is even more glaringly obvious than in Part I, which breaks the spell immediately. While certain VFX shots in the original trilogy no doubt look a tad dated by now, they at least still have a lived-in, tactile feel. By contrast, the blend of CGI and reality is amateurish at best, with the lighting for the green screens casting a hazy glow over an unfortunate number of scenes. The vaseline on the lens look has been put to great use before (Casablanca is still stunning), but here it just looks cheap, and even unfinished.
More disappointing is how much Jackson's storytelling skills have dropped in quality. The plotting is agonizingly drawn-out, yet what little character exists is often rushed. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, handsome even underneath the make up), is a compelling figure, yet this time around he only has one note to play. The supporting band of dwarves, meanwhile, often feel interchangeable. Like excessive characters in a horror movie, they exist merely to fill the frame when the action kicks in. And while Jackson and his co-writers deserve credit for creating a badass female elf warrior (Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel), they also stick her in a totally bloodless pseudo-love triangle that drags things down even further. Even Bilbo (Martin Freeman), our supposed guide and protagonist, feels like an afterthought until the finale.
Thankfully, after all of the build up, Jackson does hit a home run when he reaches the super-sized climax. The villainous dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), is stunning. Both the visual effects and Cumberbatch's performance are excellent, and together they create the single best thing about an otherwise misguided pair of adaptations. Even the story's several cutaways to other matters (the elves, the townsfolk near Smaug's mountain lair, Gandalf - remember him?) can't throw off the thrill once the dragon takes center stage. The varied set pieces Jackson wrings out of the encounter are excellent. Smaug is rendered so well that even the lackluster work on the backdrops finally stops being a bother.
But then the "ending" comes crashing in and ruins the fun of it all. We still have another full length film to wrap this all up (one that originally wasn't supposed to exist). Jackson and company more than deliver with the titular dragon (and there is a lot of material with him), yet the final cut to black is a rude reminder of just how much this adaptation has been dragged out. It's the worst sort of fan service, trying to give every moment of the (quite slim) novel its due, and then throwing in a bunch of other nonsense to fill in the gaps. You're better off buying a ticket and then finding something to do for an hour and a half. That way, you'll skip nearly all of the narrative fat, and only enjoy the good stuff. Best to sully your cinematic memories of Middle Earth as little as possible.