Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Aiden Turner, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch
Much has been written about Peter Jackson’s decision to expand Tolkien’s The Hobbit into a trilogy of films, with more than a few considering it a cynical, opportunist move. After the first instalment, An Unexpected Journey, confirmed the fears of many, underwhelming and feeling unnecessarily drawn out, The Desolation of Smaug faced a tougher task. It is two-and-a-half hours of act two, with no beginning and no end.
The film starts with a flashback: a meeting in a busy pub between Gandalf and Thorin, in which the wizard convinces the aspiring dwarf king to take a hobbit thief named Bilbo Baggins on his quest to reclaim the abandoned kingdom and gold of Erebor. Fast-forward and we pick up where An Unexpected Journey left off, with our band of brothers continuing their journey towards the Lonely Mountain. On their way they will be persued by Orcs, trapped by giant spiders, taken prisoner by the woodland elves of Mirkwood and gain allies in the people of Lake-town, all before finally reaching their destination and coming face to face with the terrible dragon, Smaug.
The good news is that The Desolation of Smaug is a vastly superior film to its prequel – though, of course, that doesn’t take much. While it is still a long film, clocking in at 161 minutes, it doesn’t feel stretched. Unlike the first film in which every individual scene felt too long, the pacing is much better this time around. This film has more momentum, more drive.
Expanding a book that is significantly shorter than The Lord of the Rings into a trilogy of films that is every bit as long naturally requires some additions. While An Unexpected Journey was largely true to the source material, in The Desolation of Smaug this new material starts to come into play. Some of the additions come from unpublished Tolkien manuscripts like “The Quest of Erebor” while others are original ideas from the screenwriters. The most notable of these original ideas is the introduction of a new character, the female head of the Mirkwood Elven guard Tauriel. The introduction of Tauriel has two purposes. Firstly, she allows for a love triangle between herself, the handsome dwarf, Kili, and Legolas – whose inclusion in the film is another example of artistic license, and, who appears to be Benjamin Buttoning, with Orlando Bloom ten years older than when he first played the part despite the character supposedly being 50 years younger. Secondly, she brings a feminine energy to a film that is otherwise a bit of a sausagefest.
The storyline is by nature episodic as our heroes progress from one location and situation to the next. It is a movie of sequences and set pieces with two specific highpoints. The first is an exhilarating chase sequence which sees the dwarves travelling down a rapid river from Mirkwood in barrels while being pursued by orcs and elves, who battle each other on the river banks. The second is the introduction of the title character, Smaug. Voiced by the world’s busiest actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is a both an impressive piece of visual design and a complete and engaging character.
Like An Unexpected Journey before it, The Desolation of Smaug has been shot in High Frame Rate 3D – meaning the camera rolls at 48 frames per second rather than the standard 24 frames – and as with the first film it is difficult to see the purpose of it (outside of the extra couple of dollars you pay at the box office to see it in that format). The resulting aesthetic is very strange. At times it feels like you are watching a videogame, at other times a digital home video. The higher definition is also incredibly unforgiving when it comes to costumes, makeup and digital effects which all look more artificial in the HFR format.
While its only being the middle of the story robs the climactic scenes of some of their power – we have to cut away from Smaug, Bilbo and the dwarves in the halls of Erebor in order to keep tabs on what is going on with other characters – The Desolation of Smaug is a step in the right direction for Jackson’s franchise. Retaining the sense of adventure which differentiates this series from the darker The Lord of the Rings trilogy, this second instalment finds the sense of momentum that was missing from its prequel.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean