The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Written by Jim Holden.

Photo from the article The second part of film franchises are notoriously tricky affairs. The Hobbit’s part two, The Desolation of Smaug - a sequel that was never originally planned - is an even trickier beast.

Originally split into two parts, Peter Jackson’s epic, although based on a much shorter book than the previous Jackson-filmed The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), has ballooned into three films. The first two parts stand at nearly three hours each, and we shall expect the concluding part, There and Back Again, to have a similar running time. From a cynical perspective, this very much seems like a studio trying to make more money from an established, built-in audience, especially as Jackson and co-writer (and once director) Guillermo Del Toro originally planned the film to be divided into (only) two parts.

This scepticism became apparent after the first Hobbit film, as An Unexpected Journey (2012) was, amongst others things, long and drawn out, and seemed to concur with this stance, making the second film an even more redundant exercise, as the first part rarely captured the same sense of adventure and wonder of Jackson’s first Lord of the Rings film The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). More worrying, An Unexpected Journey felt stretched, laboured and slightly directionless, as Jackson simply just put everything he had filmed on the screen. However, The Desolation of Smaug manages, in the most part at least, to dispel that theory as the film is both an improvement on part one and a rather good film on its own terms.

Unlike standalone part twos (such as the mighty, benchmark-setting The Empire Strikes Back [1980]), the Hobbit films were shot as one long production and then edited to make individual films. Given this production strategy, The Desolation of Smaug was never going to be just a mixture of pointless outtakes and lost, or rightfully deleted, scenes, as Jackson shoots with much detail, depth and back story. In fact, it is simply a continuation of what has gone before, and it is the continuity, tone and balance of the film that are the most important elements, and, on the whole, Jackson gets them right. Perhaps, with the majority of character and exposition done with in part one, Jackson is now are to relax and make something enjoyable, a big - at times silly - but downright thrilling adventure film; released from the shackles of expectation, he is able to add his favourite scenes, without the pressure of a running time.

This is, after all, a world in which he has been involved for fifteen or so years. The Desolation of Smaug feels like it is made by a filmmaker who knows his craft, and although we can never get past the fact that this is a middle chapter as the film simply starts, and then, conveniently, ends on a cliffhanger, in between it manages to both expand its world enough to keep the film fresh and have its protagonists experience and learn new depths, dangers, allowing the character development to evolve. Whilst the extended scenes with Bilbo and Smaug the dragon, in which Bilbo repeatedly challenges and hides from Smaug, have echoes of his face off with Gollum in An Unexpected Journey and the earlier Lord of the Rings films, it is done in a clever, gripping, and even witty way that justifies both the length of the sequence and that of the film as a whole. In fact, this sequence actually holds the film together and gives it a real purpose and grounding. This is the crux of the plot; the politics and debates are about Smaug, so it is important to give the character a chance to actually be seen and explored. It also potentially sets up a fascinating opening to part three with Smaug’s anger of awakening.

Of course, the second parts of trilogies have the difficult job of retaining what made the first film work, building on the themes and plot of the first, while also adding storylines and characters to keep the narrative fresh,. And whilst we still cite The Empire Strikes Back or, more recently even The Dark Knight (2005) as the perfect example of a successful sequel, when it comes to The Hobbit, the only real comparison is The Two Towers (2002), most pertinently because they have come about from the same scenario rather than because they were directed by Jackson. Both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were filmed uniquely, as one complete shoot, and then divided up from there, with only a year’s gap between each film’s release. Although this practice is more common with sequels (such as those of the Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean series), it is not the case when making the first. Obviously, this can be attributed to budgetary issues and the necessity of a built-in audience, but it is still a risk.

This also demonstrates why there is so much depth of character and plot throughout the series, though predominantly in the first part, as, in theory, we are committed to three films. This, then, places additional pressure on the second film, both artistically and commercially. Like The Two Towers, The Desolation of Smaug is bigger and looser than what has gone before it, and the plots somewhat echo each other. Once again our band of heroes has been split up (once again, Gandalf goes missing), and individual journeys take centre stage.

Whilst The Two Towers lost something by being notably different from its predecessor, almost feeling too fragmented, here this distinction works as the world expands without losing sight of what we care about: Bilbo, Gandalf, and the fate of the Ring. This is also because An Unexpected Journey was not as complete or riveting as The Fellowship of the Ring, and in fact we needed more breadth and space to explore this world as more of the same would have caused the first Hobbit film to feel like a retread. The Hobbit, both as a franchise and a trilogy, is bloated, but this also explains why The Desolation of Smaug goes a long way to remind its audience why people love this world so much as it gives life to the series, showing a wanting audience all the wonder of Middle Earth.

Whilst The Desolation of Smaug will be hard to judge completely until There and Back Again is released at Christmas and we can see the trilogy as a whole, it has enough, certainly for fans, to enjoy and admire. And whilst The Hobbit will never rival The Lord of the Rings for scope, adventure, emotion or even the technical brilliance, The Desolation of Smaug goes a long way toward bridging that gap. Now we just have to hold on for part three with hope.

This Alternate Take was published on February 10, 2014.

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