"You are being used, hobbit," the great dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) growls at Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) in Peter Jackson's latest jaunt through Middle-Earth. "You were only ever a means to an end." J.R.R. Tolkien purists especially will need to fully embrace this fact if they hope to tolerate the freewheeling liberties taken in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, chapter two of Jackson's at once sprightly and ominous Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy.
That these films even carry the title "The Hobbit" is something of a joke, as Bilbo, Tolkien's first beloved halfling, and the burglar who finds the One Ring that will determine the fate of this whole blessed universe, has been reduced to a fuzzy-footed tool—a faux protagonist who's only called upon when other characters are in a tight spot. This wasn't so much a problem in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which at least began by patiently grounding Bilbo and showing his roots in the verdant Shire, while confidently asserting that this new series would primarily serve as an expansion of Middle-Earth's depiction on screen. And it wouldn't be so troublesome in the second installment either if the spotlight-hogging characters and events were drawn with the richness so expected of this saga.
In An Unexpected Journey, criticisms of Jackson's choice to vastly extend Tolkien's lean Lord of the Rings precursor were largely dispelled, as the narrative filling-out didn't feel labored, as many feared, but naturalistic. In The Desolation of Smaug (or in its first half, at least), Jackson serves up something else entirely: a lightning-paced, nuance-deprived succession of busy set pieces, many of them exasperating in their breathless insistence on pandering to the blockbuster crowd.
Picking up just after the closing skirmish of the last film (yet beginning with a flashback prologue that suggests the Hobbit flicks will copy the structure, if not the spirit, of the Lord of the Rings trilogy), The Desolation of Smaug almost immediately gets down to fantastical business, pitting Bilbo, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Thorin (Richard Armitage), and 12 other dwarves against orcs, a shady "skin-changer" (Mikael Persbrandt), and an army of CG spiders in the hallucinatory Mirkwood Forest. This is hardly laborious entertainment. If anything, Jackson seems to have surrendered to the demands of your typical fantasy spectacle, hurtling from one characterization-trumping stunt to the next. (Even Gandalf, whose wise words have always embedded this brand with regal gravitas, is often relegated to being the house deliverer of over-declarative one-liners.)
It isn't until the company is rescued—or, rather, captured—by the elves of the Woodland Realm (home of Orlando Bloom's Legolas, who makes a lukewarm return here) that we get a moment to breathe in Tolkien's peerless talent for weaving grand historical grace into dazzling fantasy. Instantly showing frowned-upon feelings for handsome dwarf Kíli (Aidan Turner), the warrior elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, in a role invented for the films) speaks to her crush about the Light of the Eldar, the memory-laden, life-sustaining force of the elven race. Moments like this, so pleasantly prominent in the Lord of the Rings films, are far too few in The Desolation of Smaug, which prefers to bombard its audience with, say, a rather deplorable, dizzying whitewater-rapids action sequence, wherein Jackson leaves no circus-act gimmick unemployed, tossing in excessively choreographed orc-head impalements, and elves crossing the river by running atop the heads of dwarves, who are all riding in barrels as if they're about to descend Niagara Falls.
It should be understood at this stage that the Hobbit films are on a more whimsical wavelength than the full-on wartime Lord of the Rings movies, and Jackson has always had a taste for both creature clashes and free-for-all, Mouse Trap-style scenes. But he abandons so much restraint in this film that Legolas slaying a giant elephant in The Return of the King, and then playfully surfing down its trunk to triumphant safety, feels like a quaint and distant memory.
Tolkien's fascinations with mythology, lineage, and intimate detail are what have made his books such enduring doorstoppers, and they're what filled Jackson's initial, masterful trilogy with vast, era-spanning transcendence. It's an unexpected journey indeed to reach a point in The Desolation of Smaug when it feels as if the film is touching this sort of classical greatness. Finally, when Bilbo and the dwarves encounter Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), a gruff archer who smuggles them ever closer to their destination of the Lonely Mountain (the dwarves' home base that's been taken over by the treasure-hoarding Smaug), there's a trickling out of themes and visuals that feel expressly Tolkien-esque, not to mention reminiscent of Jackson's former glory. From Bard to Thorin, there are issues here concerning the great stories and sins of ancestors, issues we know will be echoed in future tales, be it through Aragorn's need to restore peace after relative Isildur fell to temptation, or through Frodo's need to destroy what his uncle Bilbo snatched from a glittering cave. Greed and power struggles are also familiarly present, and they thankfully come to fruition when proceedings descend into the cavernous Lonely Mountain, one of few settings in the sequel to rightfully showcase the relics and monoliths of ages past.
Of course, the climax involves Bilbo's eventual encounter with Smaug, whose monstrous bed of gold coins slopes like desert hills in the mountain halls, and contains, somewhere, the dwarves' Arkenstone, a sacred gem seeming to have corruptive powers like those of the One Ring. Awesome to behold, the thick-scaled, fire-bellied, fluidly enlivened dragon is one of the single most magnificent creations to emerge from effects house Weta Workshop, which is to say it's one of the greatest CG creatures to hit the screen. Along with a jaw-dropping encounter concerning Gandalf and the ethereal Necromancer, whose true identity is one of a handful of Lord of the Rings-related reveals that doesn't feel proud of itself, Smaug's dwarf-realm standoff with Bilbo and friends exemplifies this brand at its history-filled, aesthetically wowing best, and it raises the bar for Middle-Earth-ian cinematic spectacle, if you can believe that. Sadly, it's still a rare pleasure in a once-precious franchise's weakest installment, which forgets these adventures' magic was never conjured by bells and whistles.