The second film in what is sure to be a very bloated trilogy made out of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit furthers Peter Jackson’s disorderly pedigree more than it tells the tale found in the 1937 novel. As with The Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug has transformed the world of the very small into the world of the very CGI.
It’s no secret that Jackson considers The Hobbit to be lightweight in comparison to The Lord of the Rings, so it’s not surprising that he would add a fair bit of stuffing to the tale. He borrowed from the appendices from the back of The Return of the King for some of the material, while other elements are the pure brainchildren of the Braindead director.
The Desolation of Smaug opens on Gandalf (Ian McKellen) persuading the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to obtain an object called the Arkenstone. A year later, Thorin and his company are on the quest to locate the Durin heirloom. The hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is also with the group.
They are still being pursued by orcs, of course. Gandalf discovers Black Speech, so he heads off to track its origin. The dwarves and Bilbo proceed and come across giant spiders and the wood elves, including Legolas (Orlando Bloom). As they push closer to the Lonely Mountain and the location of the Arkenstone, they also encounter the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).
There are many nooks and crannies to this story and Jackson’s attempt to handle it all runs into frequent trouble. He volleys from angle to angle, often taking the audience out of the more immediate action to follow a less vital tale. A burgeoning relationship between a dwarf (Aidan Turner) and the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is developed without reason.
The good news is that Jackson’s encyclopedic knowledge of Middle Earth is clear. The bad news is that it doesn’t seem to suffice. The realm doesn’t seem as magical or as massive as it should be. This is in part due to the lack of physical weight, which is illustrated in the copious use of technological assistance.
As with The Unexpected Journey, the fanatical CGI is a problem – especially during some of the more awkward action scenes. Sometimes Jackson uses it well enough, like during the uproarious barrel chase down the river. Sometimes, however, Middle Earth looks staggeringly small and its inhabitants seem bland.
As impressive a creation Smaug is, how the dragon is used leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a mystifying sequence involving smelting and trickery that nearly undoes the dragon’s import. This moment is muddled and just peculiar, particularly when Thorin faces off against Smaug and tries to add meaning to this worthless scene.
Consider also the addition of the tailing orcs, another Jackson construction. This adds different incentive to the expedition, which consequently alters the course from a search to a pursuit. Throw in Azog (Manu Bennett), an orc who becomes one of the main antagonists of the series. In Tolkien’s book, Azog appears in just one line.
Also, consider how the picture treats Bilbo. Sure, Freeman’s character gets to slink around a room filled with gold while Smaug does all the heavy lifting. But he never feels like a hobbit, a ground-dwelling cake-lover who wants to put his feet up. Instead, he’s adapted almost entirely to the mission and may as well be another featureless dwarf.
What this all comes down to is Jackson’s fascination with the outsized. This approach doesn’t match Tolkien’s world of the small and that’s certainly what makes The Desolation of Smaug feel wrong. It lacks wit and lightness, giving up on its characters and sense of adventure in favour of a Lonely Mountain full of overzealous CGI and unnecessary circumstances.