The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
2013, 161mins, 12
Director: Peter Jackson
Writer (s): Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Guillermo Del Toro, J.R.R Tolkien (novel)
Cast includes: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, Luke Evans
UK Release Date: 13th December 2013
There are some truly inspired sequences in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”, the follow-up to last year’s underwhelming “An Unexpected Journey” and the second instalment in Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth revisited trilogy. The first film was hampered by cumbersome pacing and effete structuring; only finding rhythm in its latter action beats. “The Desolation of Smaug” admittedly has the benefit of the clunky exposition which defined its bloated sibling, but also a more engaged director, allowing personality to spill more freely into the feature. With an abundance of new characters and locales to work with, Peter Jackson seems refreshed, delivering beautifully choreographed and cheekily macabre set-pieces reminiscent of his pre-Tolkien career. There’s still no excuse for the picture’s 161 minute running and the screenplay’s subplots are of an uneven calibre; but visually “The Desolation of Smaug” is an absolute delight. It’s a sprightly and excitable blockbuster, powered by a newfound aura of purpose.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) remains in the company of Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves, together trying to evade the legion of Orcs hunting them across Middle-Earth. The group move through the territories of both men and elves, finding little hospitality as they continue in their quest to reclaim the Dwarfish kingdom of Erebor from the infamous dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Meanwhile Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has become increasingly disturbed by the movements of a dark presence forming in Dol Guldur, a sinister development that might have something to do with a piece of jewellery now in Bilbo’s possession.
The entire conception of this “Hobbit” trilogy has always been an odd one. Those familiar with Tolkien’s works will be aware that “The Hobbit” is minor in comparison to the colossal “Rings” saga, yet Jackson appears entirely committed to morphing the text into a comparably sweeping cinematic odyssey. The initial film’s ambition far exceeded his grasp, allowing huge passages of time to filter away with only a fraction of the action or energy required to support such a hulking frame, filling the cracks with unconvincing subplots and weak attempts to form supporting characters. “The Desolation of Smaug” isn’t entirely free of these problems either. In trying to forge a segue way between his separate bouts in Middle-Earth the film-maker does get distracted, concocting an uninteresting love triangle involving two elves (including a returning Orlando Bloom) and by allowing his inner fan to run amok without structural control. One of the things Jackson did so shrewdly with “The Lord of the Rings” was to make critical edits in the adaptation process, always letting story and character define the movies, side-lining cherished elements of Tolkien’s universe when necessary. That enviable skill is lacking here, Jackson still content to pad out “The Desolation of Smaug” with references and homage (including many allusions to his “Rings” pictures); his absorption in the fantasy realm often chequering the narrative’s drive. I’m sure there are viewers who will relish the chance to see Beorn the werebear realised on screen, or to hear direct horticulture related lines from “The Fellowship of the Ring” ported over in the name of fan service, but really, do these additions serve the plot trajectory or help justify the gargantuan time investment?
“The Desolation of Smaug” harbours an enlarged scope and heighted imagination, allowing Jackson to tinker with a variety of different sets. Most are brilliantly devised, the highlights being the gothic ruins of Dol Guldur and Smaug’s lair, the latter meticulously designed and replete with seamless digitals. It’s no surprise that these more imposing locations are where the director feels most at home, his penchant for the horror genre shining through in the use of tension and knowingly gruesome combat asides. There’s a knowing craziness to the way Jackson pieces together the big moments here, the most infectious being a riverside shootout between elves and orcs, with the heroes whizzing down the current in barrels. Not only does it look spectacular, but Jackson’s long-takes, vibrant frame construction and fondness for comical decapitation breathes life into the movie, complete with an improved use of 3D technology. We’re not talking “Gravity” levels of intuition here, but the increased fizz and savagery of the action does translate quite effectively into the third dimension, especially when the director insists on building momentum through a very mobile camera.
The old vanguard remain suitably cast, with McKellen and Freeman once again convincing most handily. McKellen has a way of lending every situation legitimate gravitas, whilst Freeman’s light touch and likability retains our sympathy. The new additions are more mixed, performances often aligning with the quality of relevant screenwriting. When the story slips up and meanders into duller territory (I’m talking lakeside town politics and unrequited Elf love) actors struggle, particularly Bloom and a wooden Evangeline Lilly as some of Mirkwood’s finest. Smaug almost steals the film -a creepily designed monster rendered flawlessly by CGI - British thespian Cumberbatch registering cunning, malice and regal stature through his bellowing vocals. The initial encounter between the dragon and hobbit is hugely suspenseful, quiet moments of suggestive dialogue peppered by the beast’s awe-inspiring movements and calculated bursts of anger. Jackson mounts the tension nicely, bringing the movie to a suitable boil before unleashing an epic 30 minutes of cat and mouse chaos in the darkened dwarf halls. It’s wonderful escapist cinema, worthy even of respected sequences from the “Rings” cycle.
“The Desolation of Smaug” is a true spectacle and an absolute pleasure to gaze upon. There’s a richness and loving touch in Jackson’s fantasy imagery that was absent last time around, his passion for entertaining an audience translating far more cleanly here. The screenplay could be tighter and the fanboy tendencies eradicated without much heartbreak, but between the issues of bagginess and self-indulgence there are undoubtedly grandiose triumphs. It’s a gorgeously crafted feature and one that deserves to be seen on the big screen.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013