The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Director: Peter Jackson
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), New Line Cinema, WingNut Films
Released: 13 December 2013
With the release of this middle chapter, Peter Jackson's much anticipated revisit to Middle Earth gathers steam. Without any doubt this is a much more assured effort and should please a greater cross-section of faithful fans and casual moviegoers alike. The experiment of a different frame rate has been altered to something more traditional following enough of a negative response from viewers. Otherwise the presentation is of a rich and lively nature, which is reflected by a far superior sense of pace than was the case in Part One. Although songs sung by Thorin's company are pleasant enough in media like radio or stage, for the purposes of an action adventure film their absence this time round is arguably for the best.
There is some material however which probably is dispensable for the film to make sense and yet it is still enjoyable enough that the progression from opening to middle and finale is not hindered too much. I personally didn't have the temptation to keep checking the time such was my immersion in the story - the mark of a cinema experience which exceeded expectations.
I felt that the character development here was also much improved, even in the case of minor or completely new characters that did not feature in the original book. Smaug himself was worth the build-up and acts as a great central villain. The dragon who has commandeered the Lonely Mountain and was only teased as a presence in 'Unexpected Journey' is suitably portrayed as a beast of greediness and arrogance, but also wit and perceptiveness. One embellishment that I particularly liked from Walsh and Boyens' script was Stephen Fry's 'Master of Laketown' - he is in his own way as uncaring and selfish as the dragon, but knows when to ride with popular opinion. One of the very best scenes not involving wall to wall action involves Thorin's rousing speech as the dwarves confirm their intent to set off on their seemingly impossible mission of liberation and restitution.
However there are still teething problems. Martin Freeman's winning portrayal of Bilbo Baggins continues to come across as a supporting role, despite what one would expect from the title. With so much added to the original and comparatively simple story, there is a consequential element of various stars vying for the audience's attention. In the case of the minor roles and even the elves this is fine, but I still left the cinema struggling to discern hard-or-fast character traits for the majority of Thorin's dwarf company. This may simply be a knock-on effect from the source material - especially when it is compared to the 'Rings' trilogy. 'Fellowship' was nigh on perfect in its depiction of species and individual character for the nine companions. Given such high standards, I can partly forgive Jackson and his team for being a little lacklustre here.
Another issue is that, despite his striking presence on the poster, Gandalf is barely featured. He is almost a 'gate-keeper' - letting the dwarves know what he expects from them and trusting them to come through unscratched. On one hand it is a narrative necessity to demonstrate that the dwarves and Bilbo can deal with danger by themselves, but it does mean that the most iconic of Middle-Earth characters is not utilised to full capacity. 'The Two Towers' was very selective in its use of Gandalf, but very effective at the same time. 'Desolation' just does not quite pull off the same trick. Ian McKellen however does not let this situation affect his performance, and reliably builds upon all his good work of yesteryear. I am surely not alone in regarding the 'grey' wizard as a firm presence in contemporary pop culture.
Some viewers and critics believe Jackson continues to over-egg his Middle Earth pudding with endless fighting and bluster. And yes, there is still a sense at times that a fight scene could work better with a minute or two taken out. Yet the action's choreography, quick dialogue and variety of jeopardy is still impressive and would not even be attempted by a less ambitious and creative director. Few fans of the Lord of the Rings have forgotten Shelob - a particularly ugly and cruel arachnid. Depending on whether you want a worthy opponent to Bilbo and his comrades or just a sharp little jolt, then the set piece with the spiders in Mirkwood should satisfy accordingly. This action co-incidentally ends up in a plot development that focuses heavily on the Mirkwood elves, who played a very brief role in a middle chapter of the book.
One of these elves is rather familiar, in the form of Legolas, but the other two of note are perhaps more intriguing - namely Thranduil and Tauriel. Both of these respective newcomers held my attention and wanted me to know more about their world and their overall place in Middle Earth. Tauriel is every bit as beautiful as her fellow elf Arwen, but benefited from both more screen time for this particular film and a convincing range of emotions from actress Evangeline Lilly. Thranduil comes across as a stern figure, yet one who guards a well of compassion - much the same as his counterpart in Elrond. He clearly believes Tauriel should be involved with a valorous elf such as Legolas, but her interest in the maverick dwarf Kili serves to frustrate this conventional attitude. Lee Pace may be relatively young, especially in comparison to Hugo Weaving, yet has the appropriate gravitas for this performance.
Many seem to feel this romantic dynamic of dwarf has been incorporated for the sake of filmgoers who normally see rom-coms or dramas instead of fantasy. Whilst perhaps true, I did enjoy the work of the actors concerned, and it was a different change of pace from that employed in 'An Unexpected Journey' last winter. This somewhat controversial love triangle is kick-started at the same time that Bilbo is given a chance to use his cunning and stealth to help his comrades - and the most memorable outdoor action scene is unleashed upon the viewer.
The much talked about barrel scene is verging on the ludicrous at times - showing some bold ignorance of physics and making the dwarves and elves' anticipation of imminent danger rather convenient. Yet I didn't mind this bit of light-heartedness as the film's story was being progressed efficiently at the same time. It is somewhat interesting that the dwarves' audacious escape from their elfish captors is combined with the renewed hunt by the orcs and that the elves play more than their part in aiding the dwarves' survival. Later action scenes such as Gandalf's clash with the Necromancer and the Mirkwood elves' showdown against orcs in Laketown are perhaps more disposable, but are still watchable enough at the time.
For those coming to the first Hobbit film without seeing the earlier films or reading Tolkien's books, some of the returning characters would have been some what baffling and lacking in context - such as Galadriel and Saruman. There is a bit less of that in this film, although Legolas' sudden addition to the story may upset some purists. It is obvious why Jackson chose to re-employ Orlando Bloom as the near invincible and lightning-fast archer - he has been in several big franchises and is a household name. Of course some suspension of disbelief over his appearance contradicting the chronology of events is inevitable. This could have been a similar issue as well in the first Hobbit film with Bilbo and Frodo, but their limited screen time allowed for convincing enough de-aging to be featured.
Perhaps more disappointing is the re-appearance of Radagast, as played by Sylvester McCoy. This good wizard took up a portion of 'Unexpected Journey', but here is almost a-blink-and-miss element. I appreciate Jackson's love for Doctor Who, and McCoy is certainly the most wizard like of all the Doctors, but he just isn't relevant to the story even with all the extra sub-plots employed to make this story a trilogy.
So having briefly praised Smaug the character earlier on, what more can I add? Well this is a triumphant example of source material, script, voice acting and digital effects flowing together beautifully. Benedict Cumberbatch could easily have taken a live action role and been a great asset but he is still more than effective as this gigantic adversary for the film's heroes. Perhaps the dynamic of Steven Moffat's Dr Watson and Sherlock squaring off in another genre provided an extra intangible that makes these scenes work so well. Or perhaps Jackson's casting team are just very solid. There is a rather noticeable change to the original Smaug passages as the dwarves that venture to Erebor are much more proactive in doing all they can to make life uncomfortable for their enemy. This is such a mismatch that the viewer is almost feeling the dragon's glee at his multitude of options to snuff out the 'threat' at hand. However readers of the book will know just how relevant is the saying - 'pride comes before a fall'. There are echoes of the 'Fellowship' Moria sequence in this finale which are quite effective. Likewise the closing few minutes are full of suspense as an audacious plan which could only be pulled off by skilled dwarves ends up with a somewhat different outcome.
So I will finish where I started. This is a fine film to tide one over during a bleak mid-winter. As all the obligatory introductions and exposition have been done, Part Two dives straight in with a real sense of pace - much like 'The Two Towers' did over ten years before. The open ending is perhaps a little cruel on the viewer but it will hopefully lead to a finale which continues to improve on the story so far, and surprise both the hardened fantasy aficionado and the more easygoing movie lover.