As we all know, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s 1937 children’s book The Hobbit was configured as a trilogy primarily for financial reasons, in an attempt to justify the half-billion dollars that it has been estimated to have cost, and with the intention of tripling box-office takings. Unfortunately, there just aren’t any economies of scale that apply to storytelling. Longer isn’t more interesting; bloated isn’t better; and 161-minute films that end on an unresolved cliff-hanger do not generally make for a satisfying night out at the cinema.
With that said, part two of the trilogy is where a lot of the action is to be found. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is off on his own mission for most of the film, and there’s no Gollum. But at least Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his dwarfish companions on the dragon-slaying quest make it as far as the dragon’s lair this time – via a shapeshifting bear’s house; the giant-spider-infested forest of Mirkwood; the dungeons of the elf king; and the city of Lake-town.
An episodic quality is to be expected of a quest narrative. But The Desolation of Smaug rushes from set piece to set piece with such breathless excitement that, at any one moment, the casual viewer is liable to wonder how he got there. Perhaps it’s best not to ask. Certainly Bilbo – who spent most of 2012’s instalment, An Unexpected Journey, in that state of befuddlement which Freeman is so good at showing – has by now become a hardened adventurer, and takes one perilous situation after another in his albeit short stride. Which means, unfortunately, that there isn’t as much humour in The Desolation of Smaug.
Middle Earth – whether digitally generated or using New Zealand as its stand-in – looks picturesque and dramatic in all of the right places. And the digitally generated monsters look real enough. Smaug the dragon, of course, should be this instalment’s trump card. He certainly looks physically imposing, with his cathedral-sized wingspan and manhole-cover scales. But, as voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, seemingly channeling Sterling Holloway’s performance as the snake Kaa in Disney’s The Jungle Book, Smaug is a puffed-up, faintly ridiculous character.
I could tell you about the final confrontation between expedition party and dragon, but in the same spirit as the film, let’s just say that it ends with a...