The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug doesn't quite pick up where the last movie left off. It begins with a scene that reveals the first meeting between wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and rightful dwarven king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). It's a fun little scene that delivers some information, but it isn't strictly necessary in a story sense. And that could describe the entirety of this movie. A lot of it is fun, but it's also all a bit much. The decision to split this book into three movies remains a dubious one, even with all the good that's stuffed in here.
The movie proper starts with hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the company of dwarves still being pursued by the orcs. Gandalf shows them the way to Erebor, but leaves suddenly to further investigate the gathering of dark powers at Dol Guldur. Bilbo and the dwarves encounter deadly giant spiders, distrustful wood elves, and the downtrodden men of Laketown, all on their way to face the malevolent dragon sleeping in the depths of a long-dead kingdom inside a mountain.
Whereas the first movie seemed to take great care to build arcs for its main characters, this volume is more concerned with pushing them forward. This is a very plotty chapter, character mostly taking a backseat to the business of putting pieces into place for a grand climax. It's propulsive stuff, but it does all ring a little hollow. The characters remain pretty static throughout this movie, all of the potential growth being saved for the final installment. The film doesn’t lack for momentum, but not a lot of it sticks emotionally.
It's still plenty of fun, though. The film puts together some of the grandest visuals ever committed to screen. The film spares no expense in bringing Tolkien’s world to life, down to the smallest details. And that work certainly pays off. The action is all at once frantic and fluid, finding moments of grace and poetry in the midst of all the chaos. The HFR version remains my format of choice, the extra frames highlighting the fluidity of some of the film's finer sequences. Cinema purists will still hate it, but the technology does allow for a few effects beyond the reach of typical frame rates.
But one must admit that even all that splendor is a bit wearying, simply because there's so much of it. The film expands every little detail of the book to excessive lengths, and hardly ever lets anything be small. Everything is treated as a big moment, every line of dialogue spoken as if it had great meaning behind it. The cast is always wound tight, delivering throwaway lines as major speeches. Despite the length, there isn’t a lot of breathing room in the movie, or a lot of subtlety. Each scene is given the same sense of outsized grandeur, and though the film’s penchant for excess is entertaining, it wears thin after the second hour.
It is always a bit odd to complain about an excess of craft and artistry. But you can indeed have too much of a good thing. At some point, it just becomes overwhelming, and all that time spent delivers diminishing returns. This is not to say that this film is really bad in any way. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug continues to deliver plenty of joy. Its visuals are constantly jaw dropping, and some of its sequences are incredibly ingenious. But all of this verges on being self-indulgent, the movie just embracing its excesses a little too much. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also exhausting. This story doesn’t always need to be this big.