“I could have anything down my trousers”

There is a certain charm to the middle section of a book where characters met start to come into their own before the big climax. It’s a crucial section, one its bookends need to truly succeed. However, when a single work of fiction is stretched and divided into three acts, this portion will inevitably prove anticlimactic when isolated from the rest. Peter Jackson and company are sadly not immune to this truth while attempting to model J.R.R. Tolkien‘sThe Hobbit after his Lord of the Rings trilogy’s structure because it simply doesn’t possess the necessary material. So, rather than bring this classic tale to life as a cohesive whole or at most two parts, they sacrifice story for spectacle and turn The Desolation of Smaug into exciting filler not even allowed to see its own climax to completion.

Say what you will about An Unexpected Journey—at least it had purpose. Gandolf (Ian McKellen) brought his band of dwarves together, fatefully recruited Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and set off for the Lonely Mountain so heir to the throne Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) could reclaim his birthright and end the evil, ironclad dragon Smaug’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) reign of fear. There was adventure, singing, familiar faces, games of wits, and sprawling fight scenes rendered beautifully in High Frame Rate 48fps. Our heroes were drawn and sent on their quest, prevailing far enough along so that their destination was within view from the treetops. And if all had gone as originally planned, Part Two would see them arrive, lay waste to the beast, and return home awaiting Sauron’s darkness to descend upon Mordor.

But no, Jackson had other ideas to jam-pack this rather short novel with a bunch of fan-service mythology setting up what we already knew after watching Fellowship of the Ring. So intent on showing the rising orc army and their “necromancer’s” growing power in Dol Guldur, he forgot that our interest lies with the dwarves’ quest and battle to reclaim a kingdom taken from them generations ago. Don’t get me wrong: I love McKellen’s Gandalf as much as the next guy, but his divergent path is nothing more than expositional excess that doesn’t immediately concern the story at hand. We’re here to watch Bilbo wrestle with the power of the One-Ring, Thorin evolve into the leader he was always meant to be, and Smaug’s magnificence both inside guarding the Arkenstone and outside flying with fire.

We do get those things, but without the aforementioned purpose. Jackson teases everything we could hope for and then sharply cuts to black so that only a chorus of groans can be heard during the credits in response to the reality we watched two and a half hours of set-up for a payoff we must wait another year to experience. The smart thing would have been ending one film with the dwarves opening their secret mountain door—providing the same satisfaction An Unexpected Journey already does but further along the timeline—and letting a second do the rest so as not to cut one of the franchise’s biggest set-pieces in half. Then Desolation of Smaug wouldn’t epitomize Randall Graves’ interpretation of Tolkien’s world from Clerks II: a empty, steady stream of walking and fighting to nowhere.

No matter how gloriously chaotic the barrel battle between Mirkwood elves (Orlando Bloom’s Legolas included), orcs, and dwarves or expansively gorgeous Erebor’s depiction proves, you could skip the first two hours and not lose clarity to the overall story. Everything happening is merely to get Bilbo, Thorin, and their friends from point A to B so their encounter with Smaug can set into motion The Hobbit’s impending war. Neither an expanded introduction to Lee Pace’s dour elf king Thranduil, fan girl squees at Legolas’ robotic mettle, nerd love for Beorn’s (Mikael Persbrandt) unnecessary inclusion as a plot device to lessen the blow Tom Bombadil’s exclusion in Fellowship wrought, or a terribly misguided attempt at romance culminating in an awkward elf/dwarf orgasm with Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel in starlight provides substance. It’s all window dressing.

I like the flashback beginning where Gandalf first recruits Thorin as a subtle reintroduction to the environment and task at hand; feel the encounter with the spiders in Mirkwood a crucial moment in Bilbo’s life with the Ring; and found Luke Evans’ arrival as Bard to be the first real “plot” moment of any true worth. All the adventure and excitement of the literature has otherwise been expanded superfluously in either Jackson’s refusal to leave any stone unturned or the studio’s greed for an added year of excessive box office that’s for all intents and purposes transforming them into a Smaug-like creature themselves. Tolkien’s storytelling magic has been usurped by a Where’s Waldo of details for die-hard fans who generally dislike the movies anyway.

If I were to watch The Hobbit trilogy together in one sitting, I probably wouldn’t be so hard onDesolation because it would exist as the bridge it is without the wait I must now endure. I wouldn’t feel so cheated because There and Back Again would carry on where I left off and the events between escaping Azog the Conquerer and Smaug’s awakening wouldn’t seem so unnecessarily banal. Because that’s exactly what Desolation on its own is—an exercise in technological achievement I find myself utterly indifferent towards. That’s the biggest shame of all too because it’s not only a marvel aesthetically, but everyone involved in cast and crew do what’s asked of them to the fullest extent of success. It’s just unfortunate their work cannot be optimally showcased in this current configuration.

My review has turned into a rant because there’s truly little to talk about out of context with the whole. But this point in time—with the third still a year away—treating it like a piece to a puzzle would be purely speculative. My negativity is excessive and knee-jerk because it never was intended as a standalone film, but that’s Jackson’s fault for splitting the material in such a way that allows me to be so. What works works, though, and I give a lot of credit to Freeman, Armitage, McKellen, and Evans; the merry band of dwarves’ rapport/comedy; and the visual excellence of Smaug’s impressive rendering. Heck, even the 3D was fun with arrows, decapitations, and bees for full-immersion. It’s just a shame it doesn’t add up to anything … yet.

Score: 6/10 

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 161 minutes | Release Date: December 13th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Peter Jackson
Writer(s): Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro / J.R.R. Tolkien (novel)