Even before I arrived at the multiplex of my choosing to watch Peter Jackson’s next foray into Middle-Earth, I was already thinking about The Two Towers. I can still remember leaving the cinema after watching the second Lord of the Rings film wondering how they were going to top that. Jackson and his team had taken every aspect of the first film and ramped it up. The drama, split across numerous parties, was handled deftly, the cast almost doubled without a hint of leaving anyone behind and the action was turned up to 11. Perhaps my expectations were too high…
• Director: Peter Jackson
• Exhibition: 2D
• Rating: 12A
• Run Time: 161 mins
I will start with the good news – remember that slow, ponderous preamble before the actual meat of the story began in An Unexpected Journey? Be gone, I say. The Desolation of Smaug opens far more quickly (though Jackson’s traditional cameo felt like the antithesis of Where’s Peter). Within a few minutes, we find Bilbo and the company of dwarves being chased by a band of orcs and more dangerous creatures. We are propelled into the adventure again, avoiding The Two Towers’ main issue – the re-introduction to everybody – by having only one group of characters to worry about.
As the journey progresses, we are introduced to the Elves of Mirkwood. While Lee Pace finally gets to stretch his acting muscles this time out as the King of Mirkwood, Thranduil, the show is quite wonderfully stolen by Evangeline Lilly. Steering clear of Liv Tyler’s ‘breathless damsel’-take on Arwen, Tauriel is a feisty heroine we actually want to watch. Her scenes are also mostly of a romantic nature but when she begins to kick bountiful amounts of orc arse, you get to see what the returning Legolas and one of the dwarves’ number see in her.
And it is not just the Elves who get in on the action – the rest of the peoples of Middle-Earth get to show their teeth here. While the fight scenes do maintain the more whimsical nature they had in An Unexpected Journey, I quite enjoyed this take – especially for what boils down to a children’s story. One particular scene involving Bombur and barrels had me in stitches of laughter. The pace of these scenes is frantic but Jackson and co. capture it all, allowing the viewer to keep track of the characters and their respective predicaments.
Once the dwarves progress to Lake Town, a ramshackle version of Venice crossed with Bree, we meet Bard the Bowman, played by Luke Evans. Again, like Lilly, Evans steals the show from his fellow Townies, Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage. His Bard acts as the voice of reason who unfortunately goes unheeded. Once the company find their way to the Lonely Mountain, we are finally introduced to the Big Bad, Smaug. Once again, Benedict Cumberbatch displays an uncanny ability to morph into characters (though obviously not literally here). His voice work is fantastic, granting Smaug a cunning intellect but an equally obsessive nature.
Now for the bad news. The biggest issue I had with The Desolation of Smaug was the ending, which is odd as it was the other way around for its predecessor. Without going into spoiler territory, all I can compare it to is The Two Towers. Knowing this is the middle film in a trilogy obviously means that a true ending will not be taking place. However, the ending to this outing feels like what would happen if The Two Towers finished as the Uruk-hai stood steadfast in front of Helm’s Deep. As we zoom in on King Theoden’s face and see his look of fear, we cut to black.
The Desolation of Smaug is not a bad movie but I do think Jackson’s (and New Line Cinema’s) decision to split this film into three is coming home to roost. They were able to make the cuts far more sensibly in the first trilogy as they were clear delineations between the different books. Here though, we feel like we are getting three quarters of a film.
In the end, I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug right up until the end. The final moments, however, left a bad taste in my mouth – one shared, I could tell, by many in the audience who saw it with me. So instead of getting slow, ponderous preamble before the story began in An Unexpected Journey, we get exciting, though equally unfulfilling preamble before the movie is cut short here.