Expectations are such tricky things when it comes to movies. Before the first installment in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy debuted at the end of 2001, there was no guarantee that it would go on to become one of Hollywood's most profitable and Academy-approved franchises. Jackson and his creative team faced plenty of obstacles but, in a weird way, the weight of expectations wasn't one of them.
Don't get me wrong: Adapting one of fantasy's most famous series of novels, Jackson had a lot riding on his trilogy, especially risking the anger of millions of J.R.R. Tolkien fans if he screwed up the books. But it wasn't as if Tolkien's work had previously enjoyed a long, successful track record on the big screen. There was pressure on Jackson to deliver, but there was no expectation that these movies were sure to be great.
Because of the success of the Lord of the Rings films, though, Jackson faces a different, much tougher set of expectations with The Hobbit. Not only does he have to once again deliver hit movies, but he also has to live up to the audience's collective memory of the Lord of the Rings films. It's hard enough to do something really well the first time—it's even more difficult to do something really well again in almost exactly the same way as you did before.
That probably explains why the first installment of the Hobbit series, An Unexpected Journey, received such a mixed response. Even the strongest reviews acknowledged that the main difference between that movie and Lord of the Rings was that it wasn't as fresh or exciting. And because of those raised expectations, complemented by Jackson's insistence on shooting the film in 48fps—a higher frame rate that he declared would be the future of cinema—An Unexpected Journey is remembered much less fondly than it should be.
But I say that as someone who respected but never really loved the Lord of the Rings movies outside of Return of the King, which had the emotional wallop the earlier films lacked. Most of the complaints leveled against An Unexpected Journey—too slow, too self-important, too ungainly—nagged at me during Lord of the Rings as well. As accomplished as those movies could be during their action sequences, I remember the Lord of the Rings trilogy mostly for the amount of endless walking and ponderous talking that went on in them.
I'm in the minority, I realize, but I think that's important to get out of the way so that you'll understand why I find myself somewhat puzzled by the anger leveled at The Hobbit. Both in An Unexpected Journey and the new film, The Desolation of Smaug, Jackson and his collaborators deliver plenty of visual astonishments. (I should say that I haven't seen either film in the much-derided 48fps, for which I consider myself very lucky.) And as opposed to Unexpected Journey, Smaug doesn't have to be derailed by build-up. From the get-go, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and those other guys with the beards are off on their adventure to retake Lonely Mountain, which has been seized by a frightful dragon named Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). You still have scenes of walking, but Smaug is a more highly concentrated fantasy-action experience than Unexpected Journey, which is always preferable if, like me, you don't watch these movies for their character dynamics or nuanced drama.
Returning to Jackson's vision of Middle Earth, I was reminded all over again just how agreeably dark these movies are—not just in their look and scares, but also in their grim worldview of a land beset by evil. I can't help but wonder if part of the reason why Lord of the Rings resonated so strongly was because those films came out in the wake of 9/11. Like so much art of that time—Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, the Jason Bourne series, Battlestar Galactica—they reflected a new era of troubling, inexplicable wickedness, except that in the case of Lord of the Rings, the good guys and bad guys were a little easier to tell apart, lacking some of the moral complexity of its peers. The Hobbit comes to theaters at a time when terrorism still exists, but this new trilogy thus far doesn't feel as urgent or topical. It's mostly an escapist fantasy that Jackson effortlessly enlivens with inventive set pieces and his faultless sense of spectacle. (And let's not forget Howard Shore's great scores, which help give the movies such towering grandeur.)
There are plenty of visual delights in Smaug: ravenous giant spiders, fearsome orcs, a bravura extended chase sequence down a rushing river, the eventual showdown between Smaug and Bilbo. Jackson's amped-up vision doesn't make room for much small-scale drama—Thorin's conflicted feelings about possibly sending Bilbo to his doom to face Smaug feel obligatory—and he can overindulge his CG love to such a degree that characters fly around the screen as if they're video-game avatars. Everything is big and unruly in The Desolation of Smaug, and it gives you your money's worth of action and adventure. In such a landscape, performances don't matter all that much. McKellen is his reliably wise and commanding self, Freeman is a touch too nebbishy as Bilbo, Armitage is again super-stoic as Thorin, and Cumberbatch is convincingly sinister as Smaug. But they're all just different paints for Jackson to use on his grand, impressive, somewhat familiar canvas. This is a perfectly solid, diverting film. So was the last one. And so was The Lord of the Rings, at least for me. Go in with measured expectations and you'll have nothing to fear—or be disappointed by.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.