A little over a decade ago it became a de facto Christmas holiday requirement to watch the latest Lord of the Rings film on its release in cinemas. After 2003 the franchise bowed out with enormous box office success, a sack full of academy awards and a vast following of fans. A decade later and here we are again; a J. R. R. Tolkien book, adapted for the screen in an epic trilogy, of which The Desolation of Smaug is the second instalment. Peter Jackson is again at the helm as Director. Almost all of the cast from the original trilogy have been brought back to reprise their roles. The stunning panoramic backdrop of New Zealand is laid out before our eyes on screen, just as before. The marketing, posters, even the soundtrack are almost identical to those of the earlier films. Why change what once was a winning formula?
Desolation finds our ensemble of characters (a familiar hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, several dwarfs, and Gandalf, an equally familiar wizard) continuing where they left off from last year’s An Unexpected Journey.That is, embarking on a perilous journey to ‘The Lonely Mountain’ where they intend to slay the mountain’s occupying dragon in order that the gold it jealously guards can be repossessed by said group of dwarfs. Whilst on their journey, they counter giant spiders, an ‘evil’ forest, blood-thirsty orcs, a dragon (named ‘Smaug’ – hence the film’s title) and generally the sort of villainous fodder well accommodated for by Computer Generated Imagery.
This is a very difficult tale for audiences to emotionally invest in. Its centrepiece is a group of greedy, mistrusting, selfish and rather vain dwarves convinced they were unjustly ejected from their homeland by an equally greedy dragon. They are willing to sacrifice everything – including their allies, and even each other – in their quest to repossess that homeland. Their prime motivation in recapturing it is not any particular affinity for the place, but rather a lust for the vast treasure of gold and jewels that dwell within. We also learn that one among their cohort (‘Thorin’) is the direct heir to a Monarchical dwarf ruler that presided as ‘King under the Mountain’ before being ejected, along with his kin, by the aforementioned Smaug.
These dwarves are presented on screen with an absurd degree of moral authority and legitimacy, and we as an audience are in essence asked to endorse the pursuits of an acquisitive hereditary dynasty seeking to recapture its familial wealth through the use of force, whilst ignoring their cynical manipulation of the naïve hobbit accompanying them and their eliciting cooperation from those they encounter by promising a share of the gold they anticipate recapturing.This stands in marked contrast to the self-sacrificial efforts to destroy the ring of power – a source of corrupting, absolutist authority – which made The Lord of the Rings and its heroes easy to invest in and enjoy. Reading his correspondence with friends suggests that Tolkein was fully conscious of the moral ambiguity of what the dwarves in The Hobbit were seeking to undertake, but on screen this ambiguity seems to have eluded Peter Jackson.
What saves Desolation from the status of An Unexpected Journey (which was dreadful) is a series of highly engaging action sequences and equally engaging lead performances. Although it runs to some two hours and forty minutes, the film does not feel unduly long, nor the plot in any way ‘stretched’ to meet the running time (both traits being present in the first film). There is also the welcome distraction of Bilbo’s developing relationship with the ‘Ring of Power’ he has come to possess, and the lengths he goes to in order to protect and conceal that relationship from his peers, all played with surprising panache by Martin Freeman. Yet the inescapable conclusion is that The Hobbit trilogy so far is simply no match for that of the Rings, and Desolation is at best a pleasant cinematic distraction for a lazy Christmas weekend, rather than a cinematic tour de force.