“Well, you are being used, hobbit,” the great dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) growls at Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) in Peter Jackson’s latest jaunt through Middle-Earth. “You were only ever a means to an end.” J.R.R. Tolkien purists especially will need to fully embrace this fact if they hope to tolerate the freewheeling liberties taken in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, chapter two of Jackson’s at once sprightly and ominous Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy.
It is notable that these films even carry the title “The Hobbit” is something of a joke, as Bilbo, Tolkien’s first beloved halfling, and the burglar who finds the One Ring that will determine the fate of this whole blessed universe, has been reduced to a fuzzy-footed tool—a faux protagonist who’s only called upon when other characters are in a tight spot. This was not so much a problem in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which at least began by patiently grounding Bilbo and showing his roots in the verdant Shire, while confidently asserting that this new series would primarily serve as an expansion of Middle-Earth’s depiction on screen. And it wouldn’t be so troublesome in the second installment either if the spotlight-hogging characters and events were drawn with the richness so expected of this saga.
But in An Unexpected Journey, criticisms of Jackson’s choice to vastly extend Tolkien’s lean Lord of the Rings precursor were largely dispelled, as the narrative filling-out didn’t feel labored, as many feared, but naturalistic. In The Desolation of Smaug (or in its first half, at least), Jackson serves up something else entirely: a lightning-paced, nuance-deprived succession of busy set pieces, many of them exasperating in their breathless insistence on pandering to the blockbuster crowd.
On the one side, picking up just after the closing skirmish of the last film (yet beginning with a flashback prologue that suggests the Hobbit flicks will copy the structure, if not the spirit, of the Lord of the Rings trilogy), The Desolation of Smaug almost immediately gets down to fantastical business, pitting Bilbo, Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Thorin (Richard Armitage), and 12 other dwarves against orcs, a shady “skin-changer” (Mikael Persbrandt), and an army of CG spiders in the hallucinatory Mirkwood Forest.
I think this is hardly laborious entertainment. If anything, Jackson seems to have surrendered to the demands of your typical fantasy spectacle, hurtling from one characterization-trumping stunt to the next. (Even Gandalf, whose wise words have always embedded this brand with regal gravitas, is often relegated to being the house deliverer of over-declarative one-liners.)
While, it is not until the company is rescued—or, rather, captured—by the elves of the Woodland Realm (home of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, who makes a lukewarm return here) that we get a moment to breathe in Tolkien’s peerless talent for weaving grand historical grace into dazzling fantasy. [ slantmagazine.com ]