THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
Release Date: 13 December 2013
Director: Peter Jackson
Running Time: 161 Minutes
Starring: Ian Mckellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Orlando Bloom
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
“So ended the adventures of the Misty Mountains”
Tolkien himself penned this acceptable story juncture in the original Hobbit novel at the same point Peter Jackson and his team opted to draw last years An Unexpected Journey to a close. The late-minute decision to shape his filmic realisation of the novel from two films into a trilogy thus presents us with The Desolation of Smaug, ostensibly a movie compromising of what was originally written, structured and shot as the latter half of one film and the opening half of the second, welded together with the aid of some of Jackson’s signature pick-up shoots to give this film some standalone unity. For the most part Desolation benefits terrifically from this - the climactic nature of the first series of sequences in the film, from an encounter with ‘skin-changer’ Beorn, inventive and genuinely creep clashes with giant spiders and subsequently elves in Mirkwood, and a barnstorming barrel escape sequence lends it a pacing, urgency and sense of threat that many felt the first film sorely lacked, and the eventual showdown in Erebor with the titular menace is the kind of explosive, adrenaline-fueled finale that gives the movie greater impact and a more conventionally entertaining final act. Where The Two Towers leapt into Kurosawa with the rain-sodden mayhem of Helm’s Deep, Desolation presents a protracted, chaotic confrontation between Smaug, Bilbo and the company of dwarves in the eery, foreboding expanse of the lonely mountain to produce a finale that ensures the ever troublesome ‘middle movie’ keeps an audience hooked, despite ultimately ending on a cliffhanger which feels inevitable and unavoidable as opposed to satisfying and organic.
Whereas his Lord of the Rings trilogy were expertly judged and moulded as standalone moviegoing experiences that fitted together to form an equally perfect whole, Desolation in particular both begins and concludes the most jarringly and abruptly, and the original decision to have the final installment, There and Back Again, be released in July of next year as opposed to December where it has once again returned, is now more understandable as no doubt an initial attempt to mitigate the far less classier work done in rounding out this chapter. The opening scene, similarly, a flashback to Gandalf and Thorin’s first meeting at the Prancing Pony (first seen in Fellowship of the Ring) may give us a very welcome return cameo from Jackson himself that fans of the series will lap up, but nonetheless feels like a flashback that has been thrown in at the start of the movie to similarly distract from the fact we then pick up pretty much immediately from where we left off. Those who haven’t seen An Unexpected Journey, or can’t recall how it ended, may find yourself lost for the first five minutes or so of returning to Bilbo in the present day.
So, structurally, it may be a bit messy and threadbare, but in practically every other regard Desolation outdoes its predecessor and offers a far more invigorating, entertaining and individual experience. Whereas some of Journey plodded through familiar locales with familiar characters, there is a far greater sense of discovery and wonderment this time round as Jackson takes us to the likes of Mirkwood, Laketown, Dol Guldur and Erebor itself with a palpable sense of excitement and adventure. The halls of Elven King Thranduil (an icy Lee Pace) prove far less welcoming than the elven kingdoms of the previous films, and Laketown, a kind of traditional olde English town on-the-water and down-on-it’s-luck, is beautifully depicted and one of the standout locations of the trilogy so far - mist and ice rolling on the lake itself and an Earthy, run-down, almost shanty approach to a town that is said to ‘stink of fish oil and tar’. With accusations of CG overload thrown at Journey in particular, Laketown is a welcome return to the same kind of tangible, realistic delight of many of the Rings trilogy locales, even if its prophecy-muttering, crowd-mentality peasants skirt dangerously close to Monty Python in a way that previous films avoided. And finally, of course Erebor, glimpsed in its heydey in the prologue of the first film, now a haunting, cavernous lair of malice and peril, echoing neatly back to Fellowship’s Moria but with a look and feel of its own.
And housing, of course, a dragon. The biggest addition that Desolation brings to the series is undoubtedly its central menace, Smaug. Lauded up as a terrible threat throughout Journey and much of this second installment, thankfully his eventual reveal is a captivating and awesome affair. It isn’t easy depicting dragons on screen without defaulting to generic CGI beasties or hitting the uncanny valley via a Sean-Connery-in-Dragonheart detour, but Smaug is an undoubted triumph. Dripping with malice and charisma, he evokes authority, arrogance, self-satisfaction, intelligence and even eloquence thanks in no small part due to Benedict Cumberbatch’s sublime vocal performance (though it is important to also note Cumberbatch performed motion capture for the role ala Andy Serkis). He’s a far more writhing and agile creature than some may have envisioned, and does occasionally register as an effect work, but some of his close-ups and monologues in particular offer some of Weta’s finest CG character work, and as a realised, rounded and believable character he is right up there with Gollum. He’s a treat and a delight that rounds of an already thoroughly entertaining movie in awe-inspiring style.
Other additions to the trilogy include a return of Orlando Bloom’s elf prince Legolas and an entirely original character in the form of his female ally, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Purists have already expressed their (predictable) chagrin at both of these inclusions, but in execution they are integrated exceptionally well. No studio in operation would commission a prequel to Lord of the Rings and not expect an appearance from one of it’s most popular characters when the story takes them right through his home, and many purists would do well to remember that Tolkien, who himself was ever the revisionist, had not yet created the character of Legolas when he wrote the original Hobbit novel, nor had he yet expanded upon the background of his father Thranduil (or even named him, referred to only as the ‘Elvenking’ in the novel). Legolas and Tauriel neatly tie in with the thematic responses to the growing evil in Middle Earth which is becoming more active and present as the trilogy progresses, representing two sides of the argument to get involved and fight the good fight or the typical approach of staying behind closed gates and looking out for your own welfares. It’s a somewhat political treatise on government and leadership that is prominent throughout Desolation, and the work done here with Tauriel and Legolas in particular harkens back neatly to what Jackson, Walsh and Boyens did with the Elves in the Lord of the Rings movies, honouring the fact they too did fight during the conflict, and moments such as Haldir’s re-inforcements at Helm’s Deep and Elrond reforging Narsil as conscious decisions to get involved with this greater fight developing and willfully contributing to the fate of Middle Earth.
Some will find the wishy washy is there/isn’t there romantic undertones between the two characters somewhat forced and redundant, and it’s certainly underdeveloped to the point of near redundancy, not to mention the decision to develop a secondary love interest between Tauriel and Aidan Turner’s dashing young dwarf Kili. On paper the latter sounds bizarre and jarring, but in actuality the scenes between Tauriel and Kili offer some of the films more tender moments of humanity and respite, brief moments of tonal lightness and tenderness amongst the action and momentum and also gives Howard Shore the opportunity to weave in some of the sheer magic he always offers when it comes to the Elven component of Middle Earth. Lilly plays the character with a steely grace (as oxymoronic as that may sound) and she is inarguably one of the films more accessible, rounded and ultimately both likeable and successful characters regardless of her origins. Legolas’ beefed up role, this time exploding with confidence and general bad-ass-ery (that’s a word, right?) offers plenty of superb combat sequences where both he and Tauriel get to execute some almost superhuman orc KO’s in a way that, if anything, could perhaps make his eventual appearance in Rings seem a little uncharacteristically withdrawn and pared down. We’ll put it down to a rebellious phase during that awkward 3,000 year old phase...
Meanwhile, Luke Evans is terrific as the rugged, well-meaning bargeman of Laketown, Bard, another of the films very welcome newcomers and thankfully keeping his Welsh tang that lends the character and Laketown some added geographical distinction. Continuing their ever excellent character work, Jackon and his writing team neatly tie in Bard’s ancestry to establish some discord with Thorin and company whilst also tying him in with Smaug and the overarching quest as a whole. In addition, in opting to give him three young children and putting him at odds with the corrupt Master of Laketown (a hilariously pompous and snide Stephen Fry) the character is offered greater context, nuance and shade from the relatively cookie cutter individual offered in the book. It is development and characterisation that will undoubtedly pay off when the characters biggest moments arrive in film three.
Of the returning cast, Martin Freeman once again proves to be the perfect Bilbo, even if the movies general busyness and additional roster of characters means he is somewhat sidelined in the middle act of the movie in particular. Nonetheless his quirky, naturalistic approach to the role, whilst it may be at odds with some of the iconic, more gentlemanly dialogue he is given during his showdown with Smaug in particular, continues to be thoroughly endearing and entertaining, and the journey the character is going on, including momentary lapses of darkness courtesy of the gradual influence of the ring, are all beautifully charted by Freeman throughout. Richard Armitage, likewise, is depicting the gradual moralistic descent and ambiguity of Thorin Oakenshield with exceptional conviction and gravitas, and Desolation charts this arc brilliantly well, offering Thorin moments of both authority and heroism as well as mistrust and even malice. Ken Stott’s Balin continues to be the voice of both wisdom and warmth in the company, particularly during the dwarves first steps back into their homeland, a moment beautifully observed by Stott and Armitage both. The rest of the dwarven company still remain mostly (and, it must be added, understandably) overlooked, though at least the majority do get a moment or two to shine, even if it is usually courtesy of action rather than character, and James Nesbitt’s Bofur remains a supremely likeable cheeky chappy.
Ian Mckellen is expectedly superlative once more as Gandalf, though the character does his usual middle movie act of disappearing for significant chunks of the films as per The Two Towers, off as he is investigating the rising evil in some of the darker corners of Middle Earth to try and get his head around this Necromancer business, aided at points by Sylvester McCoy’s bumbling Radagast. Despite appearing more intermittently than in An Unexpected Journey, and being mostly removed from the central action, Gandalf’s scenes in and of themselves are quite captivating deviations - from a vertigo-inducing trip to the High Fells through to a final exploration and confrontation in Dol Guldur, one of the series most eerie and ominous locations, and a sequence which managed to impressively match the Smaug encounter in terms of tension and threat. Purists will no doubt be up in arms at some of the opposition and conflict Gandalf faces during this portion of his quest, but for those not quite so devout, they offer some thrilling and tense synergy with Rings.
Desolation of Smaug undoubtedly brings Middle Earth back to our screens with real gusto, and makes An Unexpected Journey seem like a rather cosy, protracted prologue compared to the calibre of events and excitement that unfold this time round. Occasionally it’s difficult to shake the sense that Jackson may have gone a little overboard with the freedom his entirely digital approach to the effects work now offers him. Whereas Rings offered model miniatures (or ‘bigatures’ as they were affectionately known due to their immense size) and a wealth of practical effects again lending that tangible sense of reality, along with the inherent limitations of cinematography they subsequently imposed, here his entirely digital approach means occasionally some of the action sequences or set piece choices tend to lean towards being egregious and almost farcically over the top, despite being quintessentially Peter Jackson fare - moments such as Stephen Hunter’s Bombur becoming a tumbling whirlwind of Orcish destruction during the admittedly excellent barrel sequence, and one of the dwarves (I shan’t spoil whom) finding themselves in an almost Wile E Coyote cat and mouse situation with Smaug, ending up balancing precariously on the tip of his snout as part of an overall clash that comes across a little goofier and unclear than perhaps intended. It’s the kind of freewheeling invention and scope that Jackson no doubt finds liberating and has been present in most of his movies since King Kong, and indeed both of the cited examples were certainly enjoyed and appreciated by the audience despite their excesses, but they almost feel plucked from a completely different series of movies and it’s hard to not feel like at times Jackson could do with some reigning in.
Ultimately though, The Desolation of Smaug feels like Jackson and company’s vision for the Hobbit movies finally gets the chance to start proper - the niceties have been observed, the introductions have been made, now it is time to get down to business. And what glorious, thrilling, action packed fantasy free-for-all business it truly is. Structurally it’s a bit of a mess, but Desolation is infinitely better paced and driven than Journey, and as mentioned proves to be its superior in practically every respect. It rekindles the sense of discovery and wonderment that Rings offered in abundance, whilst also piling on the tension, excitement and entertainment leaping from one encounter to the next and serving as a confident reminder of what blockbuster moviemaking should strive to be. It’s big, bold, occasionally silly but as always with Middle Earth vibrant, sumptuous and frequently stunning both technically and artistically. It seemed nigh-impossible for this newer trilogy to reach the heights of cinematic perfection Jackson achieved with The Lord of the Rings, and whilst Desolation perhaps doesn’t quite change that, it certainly comes close, and at this rate makes the promise of the trilogies no-holds-barred finale, There and Back Again, a very exciting and precious prospect indeed...
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * * (5 out of 5 Stars)