When Peter Jackson announced that his long-awaited Hobbit movie would stretch for three films, purists and the easily-distracted alike worried about the implications. How much sidelong canon would have to be added to fill a trilogy of dwarf shenanigans? The first installment, An Unexpected Journey, released one year ago Saturday, managed to hew more or less faithfully to the tale. Sure, the dwarf dinner party unfurled in real time over what felt like weeks, and every fight scene wore out its welcome. But Ian McKellen’s Gandalf was as charming as ever, Thorin and company were universally well-cast, and Martin Freeman’s fidgety Bilbo Baggins got to step into his destiny as master burglar, quick thinker and accidental hero. Unfortunately, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug runs into trouble trying to fill that crucial middle third slot—perhaps inevitable at three hours long.
The Hobbit, underneath the Middle Earth travelogues and folk songs, is, at its core, the story of a presumably insignificant halfling finding his courage amid fantastic circumstances. It’s certainly a theme open to interpretation: The 1977 animated musical expanded this courage into a conscientious objection to war, so Jackson isn’t the first to take liberty with J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. And so, like Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Desolation of Smaug tells the story of a fellowship fractured, its band of travelers gaining new enemies in the suspicious elves of Mirkwood and making new alliances with the smuggler Bard of Laketown. The highlight of the elf realm isn’t the return of Lord of the Rings’ Legolas (sporting CGI youth makeup that gives Orlando Bloom the air of a living special effect), but his father, the xenophobic King Thranduil, played by Lee Pace, gleefully milking every drawl. Laketown is wonderfully realized, threaded with canals and suitably rickety, and Luke Evans steps out from a few years of iffy supporting roles as an earnestly broody Bard, dealing with town politics and weighed down by prophecy.
But turning a children’s charmer into a full-on epic was always a perilous move, and perhaps this movie’s biggest misstep is that it’s not even an epic with flavor of its own. Instead, it’s been built out and mapped to Lord of the Rings at every possible turn, which often makes for a pale shadow of a story that had organic sweep. Prophecies of a legendary weapon, wizard battles, impossible elf gymnastics, Morgul wounds, a slimy politico second-in-command, the breaking of a fellowship, orc battles so long they start to feel like watching someone else playing a video game—it’s all here, yet it feels slightly secondhand.
This generosity of time does allow for some welcome character beats. Among the supporting cast, Ken Stott’s Balin gets some screen time as the dwarf least likely to start shooting, but largely, the story’s breathing room doesn’t trade on many of the relationships established in the first film. In particular, this film’s light on its actual Hobbit, but Thorin also gets slightly orphaned by the film’s scope. Unfortunately, that means some of the moments that felt hair-raisingly portentous in the trilogy’s first outing are consigned to the sidelines here. Thorin and Bilbo’s conflict loses power without the carryover of the first movie’s hard-won friendship, and Thorin’s dark night of the soul feels less like a test of empathy than a manufactured stall. Perhaps most strangely, Bilbo’s battle of wits with Smaug—a crucial centerpiece of nerves and hubris played against brute strength—feels rushed and ends up carrying less heft than his riddle game with Gollum a whole movie ago. Freeman does his best, but this brief dragon tete-a-tete is only the prelude to a set piece of surfable gold hoards, action dwarves and fire-belching. This Hobbit would rather swing wide than quietly hit the mark.
The movie isn’t without its charms. Despite occasionally feeling like an afterthought, the dwarf cadre makes an affable ensemble; Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel provides an eye-opening moral compass for the elves, and Howard Shore’s music is as haunting and lived-in as the rest of his work building Middle Earth. Plus, it’s hard to deny the shiver of watching a murderous dragon spread his wings and launch himself into the sky. All the same, his actual desolation exists largely as a promise for a movie yet to come.
The Hobbit was designed to be epic; epic it is. And the story’s certainly sweeping. Your enjoyment might be a matter of how much you mind what gets swept away.