You only get to put a totally made-up word like “Jedi” or “Smaug” in your title when you’re pretty sure the audience is so guaranteed to show up that marketing to newcomers doesn’t matter much. And that sums up the feel of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in general – save for one early flashback (call it When Gandalf Met Thorin, and tell Bilbo he’ll have what they’re having) there is no hand-holding for the casual viewer when it comes to the quest for the Archenstone. Five movies in to Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth, there’s really no excuse for not having at least the vaguest sense of what’s going on, even if the specifics of ancestral lines and blood feuds are both too complicated and too pointless to bother with.
A bigger question, then: what do the people of Middle-earth have against floors? It’s like every race in this movie sees the most inhospitable, dangerously deep chasm they can find, and go “Let’s live here! A few really rickety narrow catwalks across it, with no safety handrails whatsoever, will totally make the place inhabitable!” The architectural firm of Escher & Seuss (M.D.) probably have profit shares to rival Smaug’s treasure. For a while, you think maybe it’s just Elves, Goblins and Dwarfs who do this. Then humans show up, and while they haven’t built atop giant abysses…they’ve instead chosen to build houses on an ice-filled lake. Does that count as evolution?
The movie has evolved, at least, from the drawn-out series of shots of people walking across landscapes to a rushed series of setpieces as Jackson seems to have finally realized he needed to get some story in, and it’s cramming time. Many of the familiar bits from the book and previous adaptations come into play here, from Beorn the bear man to the spiders of Mirkwood, barrel escape and finally of course Smaug the dragon himself (Smaug is not yet defeated by the end – this installment ends on an absurd groaner of a cliffhanger, following a contrived yet narratively pointless action sequence that’s there just so audiences will feel like they got something resembling an ending).
The Hobbit of the title takes more of a backseat this time – having found his ability to fight, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is a bit more generic and less complainy, while Thorin (Richard Armitage) is the protagonist who drives the story. Save, that is, for the Gandalf side-quests involving the mysterious Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose not-so-secret identity is made completely explicit by movie’s end.
And in a rather large heaping of fan service, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is here, demonstrating not just superior bowmanship but also ninja and parkour abilities that were probably not foremost in JRR Tolkien’s mind. Director Jackson, who seems to be in the Bollywood mindset that every single thing the audience likes must be incorporated into the running time somehow, has even inserted a martial-arts fight scene between Legolas and the Orc named Bolg (Lawrence Makoare, who played the Darth Maul-ish Lurtz in Fellowship), who looks like a radiation-mutated Wreck-It Ralph made of Play-Doh and wedged into some scattered armor bits.
Bloom aside, however, the movie thankfully takes us to areas and storylines of Middle-earth that feel less like Lord of the Rings retreads this time around. The influence of Guillermo del Toro, who tried for some time to be the director of this film and who is conspicuously credited as consultant and co-screenwriter, is stronger than in part one, notably with the spiders and the Lake Town sequences. (And one can’t help imagining that Beorn was written with Ron Perlman in mind.) There’s comic relief, too; not so much from Bilbo this time around, but from Stephen Fry as the sort of amusingly pompous mayor you can just imagine him to be.
Still, the biggest action setpiece is pure Jackson – that downriver barrel escape sequence, which, like everything else in his telling, has extra Orcs thrown in. It’s not enough for the Dwarfs to escape in wine barrels; they now have to fall down numerous rapids while Orcs and Elves are shooting arrows at each other and leaping back and forth on top of our protagonists’ heads. I confess that my primary thoughts during all this were how a theme-park version would easily best Splash Mountain if done right, but once Ninja Legolas comes in to save the day, it becomes pretty fun viewing in its own right.
The only issue, perhaps, with Legolas’ presence is that it renders the casting of Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel more token than might otherwise be the case. Yes, it makes sense to add a reasonably canonical female character into this all-boys club, but if you’re then going to pair her with Legolas (as a team, not in the sack; minds out of gutters, y’all) and make him better at everything, that slightly defeats the purpose. Her falling for Kili likewise seems unmotivated by anything save the notion, again, that Jackson simply wants his movie to have everything in it, including romance where none was before.
Then there’s Smaug himself (Benedict Cumberbatch again), who only shows up at the end so it’s best not to say too much about him. Except this: when Sherlock’s dulcet tones emanate from a giant reptile, it leads me to imagine a hundred heinous fan fictions being written the moment certain eager fangirls (and some boys, perhaps) get home and online.
And with that all said, the real question: is it good?
On balance, yes. As a fragmentary middle piece of something, it isn’t complete unto itself, which makes final judgment hard. With that in mind, it is very fun to look at, especially in 3D, which isn’t being presented in 48 FPS this time, but it was shot that way, and is not just nicely clear but also features a few cheap tricks by Jackson that remind you occasionally of how it can be a fun gimmick to just throw shit at the audience. I know we’re not “supposed” to enjoy movies that do that, but I always have.
That said, there are one or two cringeworthy moments that will most assuredly be harped on like Indiana Jones’ nuclear fridge – that pointless final sequence I mentioned earlier has Thorin body-surfing a shield down a river of molten metal that heated from solid in record time. It is not one of the cinematic Tolkien-verse’s finest hours.