I should probably own up and admit that I saw the second film in The Hobbit trilogy last month. Keen-eyed readers will have noticed that I didn’t publish a review of it, however, and may now be wondering why that is.
I did start to write one, but I ground to a halt midway through. I rather lost heart as well as interest in completing it – and I have to say, that mirrored my feelings toward the film as a whole. Having enjoyed the first film An Unexpected Journey more than I’d expected to (and more than the reviews of that instalment had suggested I would), my feelings about the second part proved significantly less upbeat. Even now with some distance I’m not entirely sure why that was: perhaps I didn’t manage my expectations properly going in and allowed myself to anticipate a better film than was possible in the circumstances; perhaps I was simply in a bad mood the day I went to the cinema. Or perhaps the film just wasn’t very good, despite the much better reviews it has received this time around.
In an effort to finally get through the review on the second attempt, I’ve broken down my problems with it to three general areas of concern. Here goes:
1. It’s the middle film of a trilogy
Middle films are always tricky beasts to get right, but it can be done: ironically, my favourite film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was actually the second one, The Two Towers. But Peter Jackson can’t repeat the trick this time around and as a result The Desolation of Smaug lacks a proper beginning, crashes to a black screen cliffhanger in the middle of an action sequence at the end, and in between is a misshapen lump of activity, lots of sound and fury that has a disappointing lack of cohesion and narrative. Nothing gets successfully resolved or achieved in the film making it feel to me at least like an extended waste of time. It doesn’t help that at least one of the plot strands – Gandalf’s visit to Dol Guldur to discover the truth behind the rumours of the Necromancer – won’t even be resolved in the next film but in fact is simply an extended set-up for the threat of Sauron in the films we already saw play out ten years ago, making it something of a damp squib from the get-go.
2. A strong sense of deja vu
The filmmakers also seem to have run out of fresh ideas and inspiration, meaning that there was an awful lot which felt like echoes or reprises from earlier, much better moments in the Lord of the Rings films. The sequence with the Mirkwood spiders for example just made me think how much better the confrontation with Sheloub had been; Bard the Bowman’s issues with completing the mission that his father had failed to do a generation before made me recall Aragon; and Kíli falling close to death after being poisoned only to be saved by the ministrations of the female elf Tauriel were a direct lift of the scenes in The Fellowship of the Rings in which a similarly afflicted Frodo is brought back from the edge of death by Arwen. And of course, famously the film also revives the character of Legolas with Orlando Bloom himself back in the role. Now I’m shallow enough to admit that the scenes with the elves fighting the orcs were my favourites in the move and never got old (even if they did run far too long) but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t acutely aware that Jackson was trading heavily on past glories to lift the present film.
3. It’s all too long
Every single scene – even the ones with the elves kicking ass that I most enjoyed – went on at least 25 per cent too long. Every single scene. The confrontation between Bilbo (the wonderful Martin Freeman, even better in this outing) and the dragon Smaug (silkily voiced by Freeman’s Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch) had terrific potential but just moved at a glacial pace and was then followed up by a never-ending hide-and-seek between the dragon and Bilbo’s party through the bowels of the Lonely Mountain. It reminded me of Jackson’s remake of King Kong which was similarly bloated by overruns when it most needed to be quick and nimble.
As a result of everything running too long, my mind started to wander even as I was still watching the film on the screen. I had too much time on my hands and so I was picking everything apart in my head; it meant that the mechanics of the script were laid painfully bare and I was able to see quite clearly how the screenplay was trying to split up the too-large group of protagonists with the (missed) ambition of then cutting between the streams of action to raise the overall excitement level. Unfortunately the time I had on my hands also allowed me to think ahead and see everything coming, clearly signposted and obvious: by the time the predicted events did in fact materialise I was already bored with them.
But is the film really as bad as I’m making out? To be honest, probably not. I was clearly in a bad mood when I saw the film and I can’t tell at this distance whether it was the film or other circumstances surrounding it that put me into the slump. One candidate was the customer experience at the cinema going in, which was far from ideal and reminded me why I do hate going to soulless multiplexes these days. The box office didn’t even open until several minutes after the performance had already begun, and the single person on duty then had a long argument with someone about whether a special offer was redeemable or not while everyone behind just grew more and more frustrated. This might just be the box office experience that puts me off all future cinema visits altogether and leaves me satisfied to wait for the Blu-ray or DVD for everything from here on in.
So with the possibility of mitigating circumstances regarding the actual quality of the movie itself, let’s try and end this review by singling out some of the better aspects of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Of course the production design and music were all top=notch as we’ve come to expect, and this time around the FX looking significantly more robust than the somewhat dodgy ‘plastic’ misstep of the first film where they were playing around with new-fangled IMAX, 3D and projection frame rates. Better still, the aforementioned Martin Freeman was definitely one of the best things in the movie – he’s moved his characterisation of Bilbo on from the naive and cowardly initial turn in the first film and produced something much more rounded and interesting this time, while losing none of the humour. Ian McKellen continues to be a thoroughly class act as Gandalf, although it’s a shame that he spends too much of the film’s running time away from Bilbo and the dwarves; and Luke Evans makes a good impression in a somewhat cliched part as Bard. For the record, I didn’t mind the insertion of the original character of Tauriel into the proceedings, and could entirely understand and sympathise with Jackson’s need to have at least one female character involved in the action. Moreover I thought that Evangeline Lilly did a good job of the somewhat poisoned chalice of a role, even making the idea of her falling for Kili at least halfway credible.
Otherwise I could have done without the scenes in Esgaroth, which tried to add some social depth to the Lake-town but ended up doing such a minimal job of it that it just felt like time well wasted and a drag on the film’s pace. While it’s always nice to see Stephen Fry in anything, I couldn’t shake the feeling that his scenes with conniving servant Alfrid (The Musketeers’ Ryan Gage) were an arch parody of Fry’s partnership with Alan Davies on QI.
Overall, I just can’t shake the feeling that this could have been a fantastic movie if only it had been shorter and combined with There and Back Again to make one satisfying whole instead of two half-baked parts. But again, maybe that’s because I was in a sour mood when I saw it: I look forward to the film coming out on Blu-ray at Easter and I’ll definitely pick up a copy and give it another go to see if my feelings toward it change with a second viewing under more optimal conditions than the first.
Until then, however, I’m afraid I’m simply not a happy little hobbit whatever the true underlying reason for my dissatisfaction might be. I can’t shake the feeling that a better actual film would have successfully lifted me up and been able to overcome any such local difficulties rather than allowing them to fester and grow.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug will be released on DVD, Blu-ray and 3D versions just before Easter, with the exact date now confirmed as April 7. As with the first film, expect an extended edition of the film with additional special features to show up in November in time for Christmas.