“I paid to see a hobbit in a game of riddles with a goddam dragon!”
That’s paraphrasing a comment by a friend as we exited the cinema, but you can expect more than a few purists for the books to be repeating such terms. Like a few things from the Lord of the Rings trilogy though, it’s an attitude you can’t entirely dismiss in this case. As an adaptation, it has more than a few distinctive flaws.
Following the events of the last film, the Desolation of Smaug follows a merry band of dwarf outcasts, halfling burglars and would-be kings in their journey to the Misty Mountain. With their journey already halfway done, the group needs to pass through Mirkwood and arrive at the mountain itself before their opportunity to enter their lost kingdom passes. Things are far from simple however, as more than mere orcs stand in their way and Gandalf himself is forced to seek out a far worse danger…
Let this be made clear right out of the starting gate: If you loved An Unexpected Journey then you’ll like this one. The characters remain decent, the humour remains consistent and the same borderline swashbuckling style of skirmishes remains a consistent point. Furthermore, the design of the world and its beings remain extremely strong throughout. The look of the elves’ heavy infantry and Samug himself are two critical successes. Though the latter case might leave you expecting to hear him bellowing “I am the last one!” in a thick Scottish accent.
Furthermore the music and acting is top notch throughout. Even those who are criminally wasted, Steven Fry for one, put in a fine performance for what they are asked and as a whole there are no real criticisms. Even the moments of scenery chewing and ham are invoked primarily when required.
The film remains fun and its budget is constantly well spent when it comes to world building, but the film is none the less still riddled with problems. These aren’t problems which remain consistently bad throughout, often appearing only at certain points, but there are none the less a lot of them. Many can be put down to a single issue: The fact this is the middle of a story.
Being a single tale split up into three parts and then had other aspects of the mythology welded on sounds like a recipe for disaster. Even if you were to simply divide the three acts of the story into separate parts, you still end up lacking many of the defining build ups and points which make the conclusion and its developments work. While the first film showed considerable signs of promise when it came to dodging the issues involved, this one makes a number of them readily apparent.
Both the ending and the beginning are rife with issues both as an individual piece and the part of a larger story. Along with taking little to no time to actually re-introduce the characters and plot, instead devoting that time to a flashback prior to the story’s beginning, it acts as if the audience have just come off of seeing An Unexpected Journey. Many parts meant to re-introduce certain ideas are hastily thrown together at breakneck speed with barely two minutes spent focusing upon each one, but not a jarring timeskip in their journey.
This might not be quite so bad were it not for the fact so much of the first act is spent introducing new elements rather than explaining any old ones. From Beorn to the elves to the necromancer, each one is given their own turn to be fleshed out without explaining who is who among the heroes. Furthermore, the one time we actually get to look at them is when the film throws off the audience with an intentionally trippy sequence in Mirkwood. By the time the cinematographer finishes stumbling about and gets back into the gist of things, the film’s some way in. To put it simply, the film is structurally a mess.
Further problems come from the choices in cinematography and certain lore changes. The latter can’t really be talked about without spoilers, but suffice to say those knowledgeable of the book will not be happy. Especially when it comes to Smaug attacking a certain location and the character of Bard, though not so much the addition of Legolas. The cinematography itself initially dives in quality before finally evening out at a later point. The initial sequences especially suffer from a borderline obsessive use of extreme close ups on people’s faces and sweeping medium long shots which fail to really connect with what is present. While this would be fine for the Mirkwood sequence, it’s oddly enough about then it actually stops and starts to improve.
This might sound like the film is terrible, but it’s more that it suffers from some unnecessary changes to solid parts of the story and difficult bookends to the instalment. The latter of which will unfortunately carry over to the next film and likely cause problems there. Despite all that though, it was still fun. Yeah there were a ton of problems, and analytically there were a metric ton of problems, but it never once stopped being fun and fast paced. If you are going to watch this, make sure to watch An Unexpected Journey directly beforehand. It won’t help everything, but going in after having watched the ending to that directly prior to starting will likely help smooth things over.
Go watch it, enjoy every moment of fantasy, but set your expectations low for this one. It’s not the sequel we hoped for.