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It isn’t a spoiler to say that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug isn’t the resolution to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy.  Despite knowing this, what I found the most disparaging about my experience with this latest Middle-earth focused film was just how devoid of narrative catharsis it was.   Even with all the traveling that the film’s protagonists go through, I felt almost no sense of progression in the story and character dramatics.

I felt that last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was critically maligned (at least compared to Peter Jackson’s previous films) and not nearly the disaster that I have heard it described to be.  The film was undoubtedly padded with tangential stories that distracted from its core storyline.  However, I found it to be unpretentious and full of fun characters and wit.  I also appreciated the script’s emphasis on Bilbo’s growing courage, displayed by his willingness to lay his life on the line for his friends when confronting a band of orcs.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug turns its focus towards some terribly fun action, imaginative locals, new characters, and dazzling special effects.  All of these are done with the kind of skill and attention to detail that I’ve come to expect from the Lord of the Rings team.  The dwarf and hobbit band bounces from one incredible action scene to the next; all of which never fail to entertain.  The film has it all: giant spiders, dwarves in barrels, elves with bows, and – best of all – a dragon named Smaug.

An Unexpected Journey featured a fantastic sequence between Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gollum (Andy Serkis) that proved to be the dramatic highlight of that film.  The Desolation of Smaug pits another wonderful digital/performance-captured creature against Bilbo to a much greater effect.  Smaug, the fire-breathing, dragon resident of the dwarven kingdom of Eraborn is a realization of a grand cinematic vision brought to life by the animators at WETA and the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch.  Smaug emerges as the most engaging character in the film; one whose menace and power are given life by Cumberbatch’s appropriately gravelly, yet intelligent, vocal performance.

Moment to moment, I had a ton of fun with The Desolation of Smaug and its many exciting and fully-realized elements.  However, the film can’t escape the lingering feeling of being stretched beyond its original conception as a single story.  Each scene in this sequel feels like just another moment devised to lengthen the runtime of the film.  It is not that the film is overlong or too busy, but that none of these sequences significantly alter the relationships and situations that the characters find themselves in.

Upon entering Mirkwood, a cartoonishly evil-looking forest, Gandalf warns his partners not to leave the path, lest they never find it again.  Clearly there is no doubt that that is exactly what will befall our protagonists, as they are doomed to encounter the worst-case scenario in every situation.  I found myself enjoying the action and horror sequences that followed, I love seeing characters put in terrible situations, but also could not help but wonder what else would elevate the picture beyond being just a symphony of obstacles for its protagonists.

I did not find an answer to my pondering.  Yes, all of the character’s actions are momentarily successful at moving their chess pieces closer to the inevitable checkmate that will occur in the final film in the trilogy but they never become dramatically interesting.  Almost every victory is immediately undone and it soon robs the film of any kind of narrative satisfaction.  When the film finally cuts to black, every single storyline here is left dangling with the promise of a stupendous finale.  It is hardly fulfilling.

While watching the film, I was reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s ruminations on mastering cinematic tension:

“The bomb must never go off.  Because if you do, you warp that audience into a state and then they’ll get angry because you haven’t provided them any relief.  That’s almost a must.  So someone looks down, their foot touches the bomb… they throw it out of the window and then it goes off just in time.”

In this fictional, Hitchcockian situation the characters are successful in mitigating a disaster, by their own doing, and the audience gets to feel some sort of emotional release.  The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a rousing second act to The Hobbit trilogy and could win over converts with its tremendous action, visual effects, and new characters.  Yet, I found its lack of moments of catharsis to be emotionally unfulfilling and frustrating.  I’ll happily return to see how The Hobbit: There and Back Again, the third film in the trilogy, successfully throws the bomb out the window.  For now though the bomb is still caught midair; except in this case the bomb is a dragon.