It’s a generally accepted rule that stories require a beginning, a middle and an end (even if Jean-Luc Godard felt that they didn’t necessarily have to be in that order). But do those rules apply if you’re stretching a single story over three epic films?
The Two Towers (the middle child of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy) avoided that second-film pitfall: it kept the overarching journey chugging forward, but had its own self-contained story with a worthy climax. The biggest flaw in The Desolation Of Smaug, one that sees it fall short of its epic forebears, is that it feels very much like a middle.
While it’s packed with incident, TDOS lacks its own satisfying narrative arc. Picking up immediately where An Unexpected Journey left off, we join Bilbo (Martin Freeman) as he continues his quest with the company of Dwarves to help them reclaim their homeland, Erebor, which is currently being inhabited by fearsome dragon Smaug, who’s using their Scrooge McDuck-esque treasure piles as a nap room.
This entry’s inherent middle-ness is most harshly felt in the lack of character development. The Dwarves fall victim to their numerousness again, with the majority of the 13 falling by the wayside, and even Bilbo and Thorin lack arcs.
Freeman does at least deliver the goods in some challenging early scenes that see Bilbo in thrall to the lure of the all-important One Ring, with a standout moment plumbing depths of moral murkiness rarely addressed in family entertainment.
If the tension and sense of epic questing is never as acute as it was in TLOTR, there is at least plenty to enjoy. Held up against the series’ high standards, it’s not without issues, but it remains a cut above standard blockbuster fare.
And frankly, there’s little excuse needed for the chance to return to Peter Jackson’s still magically realised Middle-earth, the unrivalled environments – from cobweb- draped woods to the sprawling palatial branches of the Elves kingdom – retaining the power to elicit gasps.
While there’s a shortage of forward propulsion, Jackson does add to the breadth of the world, not least with the proper reintroduction of the Elves.
Orlando Bloom returns as fan-favourite Legolas. a young prince whose youthful impetuousness will be smoothed out before TLOTR, and Evangeline Lilly is a wonderful addition as lower-ranking Elf Tauriel, who catches Legolas’ eye (much to the chagrin of his imperious father, Lee Pace’s Thranduil).
She nails the graceful poise and totally convinces as an Orc-slaying ass-kicker. Her romance subplot doesn’t hit the mark as squarely as her arrows, but it’s a smart judgement call for Jackson to once again redress the strong female character quotient lacking in Tolkien’s text.
Fans of the book will be awaiting several key episodes that serve as highlights: a brief stop-off for breakfast with skin-changing bear-man Beorn, a run-in with the spiders of Mirkwood, the rollercoaster barrel escape (which was originally intended to close the first act). Jackson’s eye for inventive action is undiminished, and when he gets a set-piece in full flow, there are few who can match him for breathless originality.
And while spiders, bear-men and Elves are all well and good, the key reason to shell out for a ticket has always been Smaug, and after a film and a half of build-up, he’s certainly worth the wait.
A gloriously vast creation, with red-tinged scales, bat-like wings and an elongated jaw set in a permanently sly grin, he’s easily the year’s most magnificent beast. He has a way with a fearsome one-liner too, and Benedict Cumberbatch hisses out his words with cold-blooded vitriol.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the book, the cliffhanger nature of the ending is likely to vex, and those who complained about a slender tome being spread across three lengthy films are going to glean plenty of fresh ammo from this installment.
Gandalf’s investigative subplot introduces us to the shadowy presence and disembodied voice of the Necromancer (more impressively ominous voicework from Cumberbatch) and continues bridging The Hobbit/TLOTR gap, but offers no answers or substantial dramatic meat.
But committed fans know what they’re letting themselves in for, and much of the joy of a Middle-earth movie comes from surrendering yourself to three Christmases worth of storytelling. Viewed as part of a bigger whole, there’s a lot to admire in TDOS. Though There And Back Again is now going to have to provide a super-sized pay-off…
Despite suffering from middle-act wobbles, The Desolation Of Smaug nevertheless delivers rousing action, incredible visuals and one stupendous dragon.