The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Dir. Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson has a penchant for creating comprehensive epics, and a weakness for the frustratingly self-indulgent. After the opening hour of the first Hobbit film, which consisted mainly of dwarves eating and singing, it was clear that he had fallen into the latter bracket. To my relief however, round two, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, is a more compelling and concentrated film – for the most part.
The film begins at pace: Gandalf, Bilbo (a perfect Martin Freeman) and the company of dwarves are outrunning a group of nasty orcs, gaining eventual refuge with the man-beast Beorn. Unlike the first film, this pace continues throughout, with our heroes encountering giant spiders, devious elves, seedy humans (including a slimy Stephen Fry) and finally the titular dragon, Smaug. Films depicting fantastical journeys will always have a problem with repetition; it always boils down to the protagonists confronting their various problems, interspersed with brief conversations. Fortunately, despite this air of repetition, the set pieces within these mini-adventures are extremely impressive, most notably a creative and exciting escape from the Elven kingdom, with the dwarves flowing down a river in barrels while still managing to find inventive ways to kill their enemies.
The supporting cast, too, is infinitely more interesting than in An Unexpected Journey. Lee Pace plays the Elven king, Thranduil, with delightful wickedness, and it is a pleasure to once again see Orlando Bloom’s Legolas gracefully dispatching hordes of orcs. Benedict Cumberbatch is the outstanding newcomer however, oozing arrogance and menace in his voice-work and motion-capture for the dragon Smaug. A weak link is Evangeline Lily as the elf Tauriel, a character created exclusively for the film, whose British accent fails to fully convince, as does her somewhat hammy romance with the dwarf Kili.
These strong supporting players are combined with a more streamlined plot, and it makes for an enjoyable film. In An Unexpected Journey, wild tangents featuring Radagast the Brown took a long time to become even mildly relevant. Here, our dwarf company is split up so that even sub-plots are related to key protagonists, which allows for some much-needed development of certain dwarves (principally Aidan Turner’s Kili), who up until now had been largely interchangeable. Similarly, Luke Shaw’s Bard the Bowman is intrinsically linked to the dwarves and their quest, due to his personal history with their shared antagonist, Smaug. His role as the ‘people’s champion’ of Lake Town against Stephen Fry’s slippery mayor adds an additional layer of intrigue, hopefully to be developed further in the final film. Consequently, while the first film felt bloated, The Desolation of Smaug feels vibrant, bursting with stories to be told.
There is a refreshing feeling to the film’s settings as well. In the first film we mostly returned to places we had already seen, such as Rivendell and the Shire. Now we are treated to the Elven kingdom within Mirkwood Forest, the fallen city of Erebor, and Lake Town, the latter being a beautiful, fog-shrouded collection of wooden houses on the water. It is here that Peter Jackson’s attention to detail truly shines through; his beloved Middle Earth is once again an engrossing and delightful place to spend time in.
Of course the film is still about 40 minutes too long, and ultimately the 300-page story suffers from being drawn out into a nine-hour cinematic saga. In The Lord of the Rings, it was a case of what not to include in the films, rather than what appendices, epilogues and short stories to take additional material from, or indeed what fresh characters and sub-plots could be generated in order to buffer up to the three-hour mark. Some of the side-stories do suffer as a result of Jackson’s bad habits: Gandalf’s exploration of dark forces in Dol Guldur feels like a prologue to The Lord of the Rings rather than a necessary part of The Hobbit. However, The Desolation of Smaug is a vast improvement on An Unexpected Journey, and a return to a level somewhere close to the original trilogy. So while I approached number two with severe trepidation, I look forward to the final film, There and Back Again, which may prove to be our final three hours in Middle Earth.