We’re now twelve years, five films and somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 hours into Peter Jackson’s J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations. If the edges were starting to fray with last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, then its follow-up, Desolation of Smaug, shows Jackson’s latest sequence of movies slowly unraveling. As the middle film in The Hobbit series, there are the obvious, inherent flaws in construction, namely, that its sole reason for existing is to set up for next year’s The Hobbit: There and Back Again. That means this film’s big climax is just establishing the even bigger climax of another movie. Judged by itself, there’s no dramatic arc to the film. This is something to be expected — and possibly even allowed — if it weren’t for the film’s other myriad problems.
Much like the middle entry in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers, Desolation of Smaug lacks any real emotional involvement. The plot can be reduced to one sentence: Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and a group of dwarves travel to a distant mountain to steal a precious gem from a malevolent, surprisingly chatty dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). That’s fine, but beyond that sentence, the film becomes a massive 160 minutes of fantasy set pieces — a mix of jumbled fight scenes against various CGI beasts — most of which feel rote and uninspired. Martin Freeman is good as our titular protagonist, but he is given few chances to let his personality come through (it’s no coincidence that the film works best when it’s just him on-screen). All of the dwarves besides Thorin (Richard Armitage), Balin (Ken Stott) and Kili (Aidan Turner) are fairly interchangeable and given nil to do.
For a film so built upon effects and action, The Desolation of Smaug is unfortunately of less-than-the-highest quality. Much of the solid make-up effects of the original Lord of the Rings have been abandoned for computer effects, and the CGI work is surprisingly uneven, often looking cartoonish and flimsy for such a big-budget production. The jailbreak by Bilbo and company is, in theory, a clever bit of action filmmaking, but it feels rushed by Jackson’s standards — like an afterthought. Maybe if this sequence didn’t remind me so much of the much-superior climax to Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, I could cut it some slack.
Overall, there is a sense that Jackson simply isn’t juggling the movie properly and worse — that he’s slowly become a less distinct and idiosyncratic filmmaker. Especially with small flashes of that old brilliance — a composition here, a small moment there — this is the most disappointing aspect of Jackson continually plumbing the depths of Tolkien’s canon. I, for one, miss Jackson’s early heyday making cheap horror films, but even the original Lord of the Rings movies had vestiges of Jackson’s signature angles and camera movements. That’s all but gone here. Desolation of Smaug — with its sweeping shots of New Zealand backcountry and fantasticated production design — looks like a Tolkien adaptation, not a Peter Jackson film. It’s a huge distinction, and one that makes for a well-made film, but with little personality of its own beyond its established fantasy trappings, and a whole lot of been there, done that. Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.
Playing at Carmike 10.