After Peter Jackson completed his original, three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, he spent several years expanding the films — each of which already boasted running times in the range of three hours — into even longer director's cuts.
He must have enjoyed the process, because a similar expansiveness now defines his approach to filming Mr. Tolkein's prequel novel, "The Hobbit." At a slim 300 pages, that book provides far less to adapt than the three-volume epic that served as the source material for his first trilogy, but Mr. Jackson decided once again to spread it out over three long films. One struggles to imagine where his ambitions will take him next. When the director's cut for this trilogy is revealed, will it be an attempt to document the complete life of protagonist Bilbo Baggins in real time, from birth until death?
For a preview of what that experience might be like, one can try out the latest installment in Mr. Jackson's prequel adaptation, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." To be fair, "Smaug" is the shortest of the five films he's made so far, clocking in at 156 minutes. But it feels far longer — not so much like an epic journey as an epic beating around the bush.
"Smaug" picks up where last year's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" left off, following the plucky young hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he joins a crew of dwarfs led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on their quest to reclaim their ancient homeland — a mountain city filled with vast treasures. There's just one problem: That mountain is now the home of a fearsome dragon, Smaug.
Bilbo's encounter with Smaug in the final half hour makes for some of the movie's best and most tense moments. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose digitally enhanced bass rumble shakes the theater with every word, Smaug makes a great screen villain — huge and powerful and thoroughly frightening.
The problem is that it takes far too long to get there. The first two hours of the movie are spent meandering through the countryside — chased by orcs, captured by elves, battling with giant spiders, sneaking through a watery village. Each of these episodes takes too long, and for too little gain. There's no momentum, just a series of disconnected episodes along the way to a final confrontation that should have come two-thirds of the way through a trim, single-film adaption.
The meandering plotting only highlights the movie's other flaws, like excursions into the sort of impenetrable fantasy lore that the original Lord of the Rings trilogy so admirably avoided. And the overabundant computer generated effects are in some cases less convincing than the physical effects found in the original trilogy.
Indeed, "The Desolation of Smaug" often feels more like a video game than a movie, with digital elements that wouldn't look out of place on an Xbox. Towns, bears, mountains, woods and orcs are all rendered entirely via computer animation. Some of it is impressive, but little of it is immersive.
Like so much of Mr. Jackson's multipart Hobbit project, it's a form of overkill. If Mr. Jackson really wants to improve his adaptation, and make cinematic history, he should eventually release a combined director's cut that's shorter — an ungainly epic trimmed down to hobbit size.
TITLE: "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"
CREDITS: Directed by Peter Jackson; screenplay by Mr. Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro
RATING: PG-13 for fantasy violence
RUNNING TIME: 156 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS