Stretching a kids book that’s shorter than any one of the three volumes of Lord of the Rings into 3 movies was always going to be a task and a half and there is plenty of padding and a bit of silliness in The Desolation of Smaug but the very fact the trilogy isn’t hell-bent on taking itself too seriously makes everything all right. The best manifestation of this is Bilbo, played ably by Martin Freeman. There is such an understated level of humour in Freeman’s performance, something so obviously absent from Elijah Wood’s Frodo in Lord of the Rings, that anything that’s maybe a little too ridiculous is seen as such with Bilbo’s fine sense of the ridiculous.
There are some wonderful set pieces, such as the barrel riding escape from the elves, or the battle with Smaug under the mountain but they are all intentionally laced with humour, counterpointed rather well with Thorin Oakenshields complete lack of humour and humanity. Or should that be dwarfity?
The film isn’t perfect, it’s a bum numbing two and a half plus hours long and it shows with plenty of extra material that those familiar with the book might not recognise. Gandalf’s encounter with Sauron while the companions get tangled up with spiders is a bit at odds with the tone of the rest of the film (it’s mentioned in passing by Gandalf in the book) and it finishes on a rather unfair cliff hanger but that’s to be expected of the middle film in a trilogy.
The burning question is how does the Desolation of Smaug work as a family film? The Hobbit trilogy is much lighter in tone than the Lord of the Rings, and there is plenty of slapstick to make the kids laugh. Counterpointing this is the spider sequence which is quite sinister, and the overall running time. Younger children may baulk at the running time but slightly older kids, heading towards teens, will love it and it will set them up nicely for Lord of the Rings in a couple of years time.