The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has the same problem that many Peter Jackson movies have had lately. Jackson prepares an enormous, sumptuous, delicious meal… but to eat it, you have to let him fire it at you with a cannon.
The Hobbit is littered with absolutely great moments; the standout fight for my money is the barrel chase, which crosses a log flume ride, a juggling act, and a kung-fu movie. It’s a reminder that Jackson’s a brilliant director, especially of action scenes. And in truth the rest of the movie is good too, bar Lee Pace’s playing Thranduil like he’s auditioning for Lemongrab’s MacBeth.
There’s so much to love here, but Jackson crams it all in, and so much of it is unnecessary. The skinwalker scenes at the beginning are well-acted and shot, for example, but they don’t really add much except to explain how the party gets to Mirkwood after the end of the first movie. Stephen Fry is always welcome but you could cut every moment he’s in this movie with no trouble whatsoever. The entire movie is rife with this problem; it may all be good, but there are plenty of moments where you just want Jackson to get on with it, dammit.
Similarly, this movie doesn’t resolve the tonal problems that come from trying to make The Hobbit more like the Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit is a much more lighthearted book, and while Jackson wants to stay faithful to the text, he also seems to want to take every conceivable opportunity to remind us that it’s a prequel to his Lord of the Rings movies. Yes, Peter. We know the ring is bad. You don’t need to have Bilbo pawing at it every five seconds, or play the ring’s theme constantly. You don’t need to remind us by having Gandalf wander off that the Nazgul are out there.
It holds the movie back not least because it fairly deliberately plays on the idea that we’ve all seen the Lord of the Rings. True, that’s a fair assumption, but realistically, it’d be nice for these movies to stand a bit more on their own. There’s a far more lighthearted and zippy little fantasy movie struggling to escape from this one. This doesn’t need to be LOTR Part Deux. It really can stand on its own.
It’s especially a shame because Martin Freeman is an outstanding Bilbo and does some of his best work as an actor. He really comes into his own here, blending into the ensemble when he needs to, standing out when he needs to, and delivering some great moments. Freeman was already a star, but this movie should catapult him further. Similarly, Benedict Cumberbatch is a fun Smaug; out of all the cast he seems to enjoy his job the most. He reads his lines like he’s eating evil chocolate truffles. It’s a hoot.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is rare in that it’s a bloated movie that’s not terrible. It’s a lot of fun. But you finding yourself wishing that Jackson had been allowed to make The Hobbit, not “The Prequel To The Lord Of The Rings.”