I’ve been a massive fan of Peter Jackson’s Extended Editions since that chunky, green FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING box set first appeared on my DVD shelf over a decade ago. It was followed by a chunky burgundy TWO TOWERS and a chunky blue RETURN OF THE KING over the next two years, and those tantilisingly extended film cuts, the meticulous, almost obsessive pile of behind-the-scenes documentaries and the warm, funny cast commentaries have been watched time and time again. The Extended Edition of THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY continued to prove Jackson as a film addict’s enabler, offering yet more making-of goodies and some nice additional scenes that went some way to lessening the weaknesses of his original cut. Now comes an extended DESOLATION OF SMAUG, and I must admit I’m a little disappointed.
For those just joining us, the second chapter of Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman) journey finds the previously timid and comfort-loving hobbit and his party of displaced dwarves continue on their quest to reclaim the kingdom of Erebor from the formidable dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), and this time we get to come face-to-face with the fiery beast. In addition to their scaly nemesis, the diminutive company must also contend with horrifying giant spiders, relentless orcs in pursuit, devious wood elves and corrupt, sorry examples of humanity, all the while a great darkness from the past threatens to rise again.
I found that most of Jackson’s additions to The Desolation of Smaug, the embellishments to the story that already worked handsomely, just amounted to unnecessary waffle that ruined the rhythm and pacing of dialogue scenes, as well as the svelte (for Jackson) plotting of the second Hobbit film’s story at large.
Is this a warning of the danger of releasing a director’s cut that exists for its own sake? Jackson clearly doesn’t like wasting footage, but if it doesn’t add to the story, or if it’s reached the stage where he seems to have shot entirely different versions of scenes just to release this version of the film later (or perhaps this is a result of the extensive reshoots) it seems like a pointless, egotistical endeavor.
This is the only one of Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth films so far where I actually prefer the original theatrical cut. With all the Lord of the Rings films as well as the first Hobbit, I always found myself saying at least once, “Awww, why’d they cut that out?”. Fellowship had more hobbitty goodness, Two Towers had Theodred’s beautiful funeral and an affecting Boromir/Faramir flashback, Return of the King gave us Saruman’s demise. Even the first Hobbit brought us dwarves skinnny-dipping in an elf fountain. Here, I more often than not found myself asking “Why was this ever a necessary moment to tell this story?”.
Nobody, and I mean nobody needs to see Stephen Fry’s Master of Laketown eating his way through a plate of ram and goat testicles, and especially not with the addition of an obvious, CARRY ON-esque lead-in to the gag. I’m of course not against lighter moments in the story, but surely you want something, if not more sophisticated, then at least funnier, than this?
The embellishments we do get are mostly unmemorable and uninteresting – a few extra lines of dialogue here, a disappointing extended encounter with Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) there. About the only new thing worth seeing is Thorin’s (Richard Armitage) long-lost father Thrain (Michael Mizrahi) who turns up in Dol Guldur all feral to briefly tangle with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) before regaining his senses and the deepest of regrets about how his disappearance may have affected his son, and indirectly sent him on a fool’s errand. The Thrain scene is good, but it’s right at the end and over all too quickly.
Even if the film itself hasn’t improved with Peter Jackson going back and pumping it up, the special features do not disappoint. If you care to know such things, you can hear those in the know talk you through the minutia of writing, filming, production design and the cast and crew arsing about. I’m still only on the first disc, but my favourite behind-the-scenes morsels so far are watching poor fish-phobic Adam Brown (Ori) being entombed in a mountain of the (real) slippery buggers, and Lee Pace (Thranduil) struggling with his “elf dress”.
Maybe for the next (and presumably final) Extended Edition, you should have a long hard think, Mr Jackson – do you need to keep this in, or is it just filler? SSP