When all is said and done, and Peter Jackson’s entire suite of Middle Earth movies are sitting on my shelf, I dare say I’ll look upon them with a great deal of fondness and really quite regularly take them down for a rewatch.
And that, perhaps, is the key word. Rewatch.
At the moment, we’re getting The Hobbit in instalments, with each huge intermission clocking in around the length of a calendar year. Last year brought An Unexpected Journey – which I loved, even – or perhaps I might even say particularly – during the less popular singalonga teaparty sections.
I really did get into the opening hour’s introduction to the dwarfs and the younger Bilbo more than many. I have a theory why, and it’s that I just didn’t feel I already knew them intimately. Sure, I feel like I know the older Bilbo well enough from the Rings movies, and I’ve even read Tolkien’s Hobbit novel a couple of times at least, but the young Bilbo and the dwarfs felt like a blank sheet, at first.
I was still waiting to meet the movie versions of these characters, to get to know them in their distinct, Jacksoned manifestations. I didn’t have any expectations, really, that they’d be the same as the ones in the book and I was sure that Jackson and his co-writers would have had to expand on many of them as, on the page, they had been left rather slight.
So, during the meeting at Bag End, I was getting to know them all. That was a lot of fun, and that whole stretch felt like a good, light, comic first act, with just enough thematic material, character work and hints of what was to come.
And the rest of the film kept stacking up the dramatic set-ups for me to happily munch on. Overall, An Unexpected Journey was a protracted “act one” leading into a big chunk of a supremely epic though unresolved act two, and I enjoyed it as such.
But a brief prologue and forgetting some subplots, most of which are born and resolved entirely within its running time, The Desolation of Smaug is all second act and this is the root of why it might, on a level, be a disappointment.
Because in this movie’s structure, characters can coast in on inertia from the first film, carry on bumping along with little meaningful deviation, and then coast on out again, waiting to really get somewhere in the third film.
It’s all progression with little resolution and that can curiously feel, I’d say, like no actual progression at all.
So, as a standalone movie, The Desolation of Smaug feels unsatisfying in some important ways: There’s not enough Bilbo; nobody really gets anywhere; everything that the story needs to touch remains just out of grasp; catharsis and closure are left dangling, one whole movie and just about twelve months away.
One reason that the newly introduced elf character Tauriel is a particularly welcome addition is that her subplot with Kili has a full arc, tracking out from a clear beginning, progressing nicely and then dramatically resolving.
Meeting Smaug is definitely a high point too, another powerful injection into the film, because trying to figure him out and get to grips with his character is engaging. The dragon’s appearance in the first film was all prefix, really, with this being our first chance to actually meet his personality.
But other than this, and particularly with the constant chase dynamic of the film… it feels a bit pointless in such isolation, a trajectory stretching out of sight in both directions with neither end in on the chart. I wonder how different things would have been if the writers had developed three full movie arcs to begin with and not re-appropriated material written for a diptych at a very late stage in the game.
The Desolation of Smaug feels like a detail from a larger, beautiful canvas. I admire its craft, and I’m sure its true magnificence will be revealed in the bigger context, but for now… it feels chopped off around all of the edges. Perhaps it’s just the box-set bingwatcher in me, but coming out of this film with a year to wait for the final developments just left my heart hanging. Rarely has such a well-orchestrated, winningly executed film sent me out into the foyer in such a guarded trudge.
The solution, I think, would have been as simple as changing where this film ends. Instead of leaving us racing towards an expected third-act turning point, I think we needed to reach it. I don’t know if it was desire for a certain flavour of cliff hanger or a running time consideration (for either this film or the third) that saw this film cut to credits when it did, but it really wasn’t the right time.
You could argue that such a film shouldn’t be expected to stand on its own two feet and that it ought to be allowed to function as a frayed-ends episode, a part of a longer work, designed to be seen only in context. In that case, I wouldn’t have too many serious problems with The Desolation of Smaug and I’d be heaping praise on its set-pieces, some charming characterisation, and the slick, smart combination of Tolkien’s scattered material from The Hobbit and its appendixes into something cogent and full of incident. I’d also say that, seen from the point of view of this being just a second episode, you probably already know if you want to see this movie or not and you’re going to be right. Did An Unexpected Journey leave you wanting more? Well, here’s more, now with less set-up because, honestly, you’re already up to speed.
The Hobbit: There and Back Again will be along on December 2014 and I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t satisfy in every way that The Desolation of Smaug frustrates.