There’s a moment in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug where Gandalf has wandered off from the company of dwarves and is creeping his way through an ancient crypt. Discovering an open tomb, he’s startled by Radagast the Brown. “Why are we here, Gandalf?” asks Radagast. Good question, I thought; “To set up the next film” appeared to be the answer.
It’s an answer that explains a lot of Smaug. What’s the point of the opening scene with shape-shifting Beorn, where he provides them with ponies that they have to set free in the very next scene? To introduce Beorn, who’ll turn up again in the next film’s climax. Why is Azog the one-armed Orc from the previous film unceremoniously swapped out for a different Orc who continues hunting Thorin? So that the replacement Orc could be killed off in Smaug, saving the inevitable Thorin/Azog fight for the next film. And why are we shown Girion using a Black Arrow to chip a scale from Smaug’s hide, and then shown that Girion’s descendent Bard also has an arrow, and the means to fire it? Because that’s how Smaug will be defeated in the next film, of course.
This Chekhov’s gun set-up renders pointless the climactic battle between the dwarves and Smaug under the mountain. No matter what they do or how they do it (and what they do is risibly contrived), the audience knows that Smaug is safe, knows that Bilbo will survive and that the dwarves may not survive but are so interchangeable that it wouldn’t matter anyway. There’s no thrill or tension to any of it.
While The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers featured the battle of Helm’s Deep and the fall of Saruman to provide an effective mid-trilogy climax, Smaug doesn’t have anything like that, leaving a film that starts and ends in the middle, with a bit of middle in the middle to keep you going. The film is a generally lively affair but the action sequences outstay their welcome and lack tension when everyone is a weightless CGI figurine bouncing implausibly around, every arrow or blade flawlessly hitting the mark, nobody ever seeming like they might be in danger. Tauriel and Legolas provide the (immaculately choreographed and CGI-smooth fake) Elvish wire-fu but could be removed entirely from Smaug with only minor adjustments to the script. There’s a vague attempt at stoking a love triangle between the two elves and one of the more smouldering dwarves but it’s barely there and it isn’t clear why the audience should care anyway.
So, where’s the hobbit in all of this? As with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Martin Freeman is the highlight of the film. Both his rescuing of the dwarves from Mirkwood and his meeting with Smaug are fun, and the start of his corruption by the Ring is well-played, both Bilbo’s confidence and possessiveness increasing as a consequence of the abilities the Ring bestows upon him (the most chilling moment of the film is friendly, comical Bilbo looking straight at the camera, brandishing the Ring, and baldly stating ‘Mine.’ after stabbing a giant spider to death to reclaim it).
It’s a shame, then, that Bilbo is sidelined for so much of the film, in favour of predictable fight scenes, Gandalf’s wanderings, and moping dwarves. Smaug doesn’t seem like it wants to be about the Hobbit, and it’s barely about Smaug either. In the end, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is just a middle, a bridge between two films that only needed bridging because of a misguided decision to create three films in the first place. While I’m sure the financial argument for doing so will prove sound, creatively, this is all just padding.