There’s nothing like a fire-breathing dragon to inject some heat back into a franchise gone lukewarm. In The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, the second of three very long movies Peter Jackson has managed to squeeze out of one fairly short book, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) finally encounters the mighty reptilian menace of the title. He’s a sight to be seen—a grand CGI attraction, lurching out from under a blanket of golden treasure, issuing threats with the disdainful tongue of Benedict Cumberbatch. After the three-hour throat-clear that was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it’s nice to get to the middle of this Middle-earth adventure where all the good stuff happens. Drawing on the most exciting chapters of J.R.R. Tolkien’s slighter, slimmer Lord Of The Rings precursor, Smaug offers not just an unlikely Sherlock reunion, but also a skirmish with Elvish archers, a terrifying encounter with woodland arachnids, and a daring escape down a wild river. This Hobbit is, in other words, a much more eventful affair than its year-old predecessor. And yet for all the fine spectacle Jackson crams into his lengthy sequel-within-a-prequel, it’s still hard not to mourn the single, self-contained movie that could have been.
Like The Two Towers, the second of the director’s majestic Lord Of The Rings films, Smaug is a lively middle child—a work blessedly caught between rising and falling action, with nothing better to do than wow its audience with lots of fantastical complications. After an ominous prologue, in which the wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has a grave chat with dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage), the film races back to where Jackson left off in An Unexpected Journey: Bilbo and his dirty dozen of squat companions make their way across the more treacherous expanses of Middle-earth, their destination a mighty mountain guarded by a fearsome monster. As long as Smaug sticks to script, re-creating the twists and turns of Tolkien’s novel, it maintains a boyish spirit of adventure. Though he relies a bit too heavily on digital movie magic these days, Jackson remains a skilled purveyor of derring-do. With introductions out of the way, the cast—including the whopping 12 actors playing dwarves—finds more room to create characters out of these adventurers with funny names. (Aidan Turner, as pint-sized hunk Kili, and Ken Stott, as senior comrade Balin, make the biggest impression with their expanded screen time.) And whether flattering a hungry foe or summoning a burst of unlikely courage, Freeman proves again that he’s the perfect fit for the lead—a beacon of humble charm in a land of bloating egos.
So why can’t The Hobbit just be The Hobbit? Drunk with ambition, and apparently incapable of self-editing, Jackson’s stuffed what should be a fleet bit of escapism with extraneous plot. Here, for no reason beyond fan-service, is a younger and more petulant Legolas (Orlando Bloom), pining for a pointy-eared beauty (Evangeline Lilly, quite good in a role invented for the film) that he can’t have. Why, furthermore, must the movie also function as an act of foreshadowing, teasing the appearance of a villain we’ve already seen vanquished in that other nine-hour trilogy? The truth is, Jackson can’t quit Lord Of The Rings; he seems intent on remaking it, blowing up a simpler adventure yarn into something bigger than it was meant to be. That’s a real shame, because when watching The Desolation Of Smaug, it’s possible to see what a superb film (not films) Jackson might have made out of The Hobbit, had he simply done a little condensing. ( An Unexpected Journey, for example, could have been reduced to a great first act.) But that Bucklebury Ferry has sailed. Tolkien fans will have to make do with these super-sized adaptations. Here’s hoping they like CGI armies in battle, because there’s a three-hour one called There And Back Again arriving in a year.