A journey back into Middle Earth is always something to get excited about. Although the general buzz around The Desolation of Smaug has been somewhat less than previous visits, there was still plenty to intrigue about the next installment in The Hobbit trilogy. The main reason being, we all want to see what this film does to justify why we actually have a Hobbit trilogy. Much of the criticism directed towards the first installment, An Unexpected Journey, was in regards to its laborious pacing. In the year since that release, the opinion of that film has turned into something which is quite harsh; I found the film (despite its very damaging pacing issues) to be a welcome return to Middle Earth, one that concerned itself with character and establishing a sense of child-like wonder and awe. Desolation has worried me, ever since the first trailer was released. It looked to contain too much needless padding. And while that has turned out to be the case, it does have a bloody good dragon to boot.
Picking up after the events of An Unexpected Journey, we re-join Thorin Oakenshield’s (Richard Armitage) quest to take back Erebor from the keep of the terrifying dragon, Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). With Gandalf (Ian McKellen) attending to other business concerning a mystery involving the rise of a certain dark lord, the company of Dwarves, along with contracted burglar Bilbo (Martin Freeman) find themselves encountering arrogant Elves, battling a group of Orcs determined to make them fail, as well as making their final push to The Lonely Mountain. Once they get there, Bilbo will have to face his contractual obligation and attempt to steal the Arkenstone from beneath the fierce eyes of the dragon Smaug.
Desolation is a much more exciting piece of escapist cinema with a much greater sense of purpose. Unfortunately, this seems to be in favour of losing much of the charm of the first film, devoting attention to agitating story aspects and never allowing for a true sense of attachment to Bilbo, Thorin and co. There were plenty of characters in The Lord of the Rings, but time was devoted very well to the individual subplots, rarely lagging purely because we cared about them. Peter Jackson clearly wants to recapture this sense of a number of adventures occurring simultaneously, but in the case of The Hobbit, it is not something that needs to happen. Instead of devoting his time to the quest at hand, Jackson feels it right to establish a sub-plot with the returning Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and new original character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Not only do the two put across two of the worst performances that we have seen in the realm of Middle Earth, their story is infuriating and distracting, as a love triangle between the two and Kili (Aidan Turner) proves to be an ill-judged move on behalf of Jackson and his screenwriters. It is a distracting sub-plot that would not have been missed if it had ended up on the cutting room floor.
While the pacing issues are definitely not as bad as An Unexpected Journey, there are still some issues in this 2 hour and 40 minute film. It is not that it is particularly boring, it is more that there is little to no structure. This is not a film in the traditional sense of the word. This is a sequence of events happening one after the other, which then just happens to end once it thinks its been around too long. Make sure you enter accepting that fact, and you may have a better time than me. At least An Unexpected Journey had a three act structure, Desolation feels like it is wondering from place to place, trying to kill time before the eventual encounter with Smaug. Along the way, we do have a great deal of fun with a skirmish in Mirkwood, and a highly energetic barrel escape. But until we get to Smaug, we do not do a great deal with our time. While Luke Evans is a welcome addition as Bard the Bowman, most of the new characters add little to the proceedings. Thank God, then, for Smaug.
Once we enter the halls of The Lonely Mountain, you just about forget the journey its taken to be there. Smaug is realized through stunning visual effects and is given a unique and vicious personality by the one and only Benedict Cumberbatch. The sequence within the mountain as well stands out as not only the highlight of the film, but as one of the highlights of the entire Middle Earth franchise. Jackson builds a great level of suspense, whilst also allowing Martin Freeman to provide light relief with his still spot on performance, even though he gets lost in the shuffle within the rest of the film. It provides the film with a sense of purpose, a reason to exist, that had been lacking in the build up. Much of what comes before we enter the mountain feels needless, the blow somewhat being softened by the brilliant production design of the Laketown of Esgaroth. Smaug however does make it worth it, as he is a wondrous creature of design and execution; remarkably detailed and a scene stealer in every sense of the term.
What is most lacking in Desolation, and the aspect that made the film somewhat underwhelming for me, is a sense of investment. The spectacle is there by the bucket load, but there is little else worth clinging on to. We are about to enter the final installment, and while that looks set to be an action-packed affair, I find myself caring very little about it. At this point in LOTR there felt like there was much more at stake due to the fact that we cared much more about the characters. The Hobbit is too much of a crowded affair to have the same level of investment, and this has to come down to the fact that Jackson made the decision to make Tolkien’s novel into a trilogy. Too much time is wasted elsewhere in this installment, resulting in a lack of interest into what is going to happen next, despite the rather blunt cliffhanger ending. There and Back Again will be with us in one year’s time. Will I rush out to see it? Probably. But only because of Sherlock and Watson.