And so we reach the middle two-and-a-half hours of a 322-page book. It is a bit of a stretch, but this is a Peter Jackson trilogy. With last year’s opening installment, An Unexpected Journey, Jackson showed he could use JRR Tolkien’s original novel as the framework for a wider exploration of Middle-earth in the days before Frodo. Despite a slight case of middle-act-itis, he keeps the trick going in The Desolation Of The Smaug.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his band of dwarfs are still headed for the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the kingdom that lies beneath from an avaricious dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch). Along the way they do battle with orcs, elves and some creepy-ass spiders. All the while Bilbo is getting ever more possessive of his precious ring…
Middle films are tough at the best of times: they’ve got plot to get through, but no real beginning or end. The screenwriters solve the first problem by breaking the structure to open before An Unexpected Journey – Gandalf (Ian McKellen) approaches dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and helpfully recaps the plot. Additional threads, such as a romance between the dwarf Kíli (Aidan Turner) and the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), give The Desolation Of Smaug its own shape within the wider arc – even if it never feels like an independent story.
The cast remains the highlight. Freeman is an easy fit for Bilbo; the English mixture of self-importance and befuddlement that suited him to Arthur Dent do much the same trick here. Armitage brings a wounded pride to Thorin, while Turner has a touching humanity that lesser fantasy is often missing.
Above all, the film is fun. The Lord Of The Rings might be high epic, but The Hobbit is a children’s book. Though the tone has been darkened, the sense of adventure is retained and Jackson grabs any excuse Tolkien gives him for a set piece (the book’s stealthy barrel escape becomes a rollercoaster three-way fight). I’d take character and adventure over the dry proclamations of the original trilogy any day.
Overindulgence is a chronic problem of Jackson’s, however. It’s been apparent since the interminable battle sequences that clogged up the latter half of The Lord Of The Rings trilogies – and, for all their spectacle, the last 20 minutes of this film lack of a sense of climax. Smaug doesn’t get to do much desolating either.
However, this is now Jackson’s Middle-earth as much as Tolkien’s: the book is merely the starting point. At three films the story is overstretched and this middle section could do with being leaner. But the cast is strong, the adventure thrilling and the world-building accomplished. You may come out with reservations, but you’ll have had a hell of a lot of fun.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is out now