RELEASE DATE: 26/12/2013
RUN TIME: 2HR 41MIN
|GUILLERMO DEL TORO|
The journey to the Lonely Mountain continues for Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the band of thirteen dwarves. After Gandalf (Ian McKellen) leaves them to investigate rumours of a terrible evil emerging, the company has to contend with giant spiders and militant woodland elves, where they meet a pompous young prince named Legolas (Orlando Bloom). Following a thrilling river escape, they finally reach the lake before the mountain, and with time running out, Bilbo is sent inside to retrieve the precious Arkenstone, an iconic jewel that will help unite the armies of the dwarves. Once inside, however, Bilbo comes face to face with the enormous and terrifying dragon that guards the treasure, Smaug the Magnificent (Benedict Cumberbatch).
If ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ establishes anything, it’s that this is a very different beast to ‘Rings’. It wastes no time returning to the narrative, making this feel more like the second episode of a single film. ‘Smaug’ can’t stand as a film on its own terms, something the three films in the ‘Rings’ trilogy were vaguely capable of. The considered pacing of the first film is nowhere to be found, the film leaping from action set piece to action set piece with aplomb. Jackson seems more at home with this section of the book, free from exposition and able to indulge in pushing his skills and the film further than before. Of course the film is technically superb, but we wouldn’t expect anything less. Structurally, this feels more episodic than the last, but this isn’t entirely Jackson’s fault. ‘The Hobbit’ might be a masterpiece, but Tolkien was not an experienced writer when he wrote it, and the book feels like a series of thrilling episodes rather than a carefully constructed narrative. Jackson and his team make some effort to give it a stronger structure, mostly with the suggestion than Smaug may be linked to the greater and darker forces emerging in Middle Earth (and we know where that ends up). This is mostly successful, but in many ways, ‘Smaug’ suffers from the same problems that plagued ‘The Two Towers’ - the dreaded middle film syndrome. It’s a film that doesn’t quite know what it is, neither an introduction or a climax. This even affects Howard Shore’s score, which is his weakest for Jackson, devoid of any new themes or even the great Misty Mountains theme from the first film. It’s also a tad too long again, though this time Jackson makes strange choices to stay longer on one section of the story devoid of much forward motion (political intrigue in Lake-town) and practically skips over the more intriguing episode in Mirkwood. In fact, Lake-town is his first real misstep in a while. It might be interesting to him, but for an audience it carries so little consequence to the story, and just means a longer wait for what we’ve really been waiting for.
And when that dragon appears, all sins can be pretty much forgiven. The pressures to make Smaug something spectacular are similar to those on Gollum in ‘Rings’, and once again they have worked a miracle. Smaug is one of the most iconic dragons in world literature, and the combination of WETA’s stunning effects and Cumberbatch’s delectable performance practically steal the film. Jackson responds to this immense character with a dizzying and daring visual style that emphasises Smaug’s immense size and serpentine personality. Almost as memorable is the short but terrific section in Mirkwood and the fight with the spiders, and the tremendous escape in the barrels from the kingdom of the Mirkwood elves. This short sequence in the books is expanded into a full-blown action set-piece that makes it very clear ‘The Hobbit’ is, first and foremost, a rollicking action adventure film. And as Jackson marches us towards the impending doom of ‘Lord of the Rings’, he begins to weave in something sinister in Bilbo and his relationship with the Ring. Tolkien didn’t know when he wrote the book where the story would eventually end up, but Jackson does.
When that dragon appears, all sins can be pretty much forgiven.
The performances are all uniformly excellent, with Martin Freeman once again stealing the film with his subtle and intelligent performance as Bilbo. Everyone else seems very aware that they’re part of a big fantasy film, but Freeman never loses sight of the everyman that makes Bilbo so relatable. His journey takes a significant step forward in this chapter, and it’ll be great to see that completed in a years time.
‘The Desolation of Smaug’ certainly isn’t without its problems, and ‘The Hobbit’ is yet to reach the heights set by ‘Lord of the Rings’, but any expectation that it would is misguided. This story doesn’t have the emotional stakes of its follow-up, and it is to Jackson’s credit that he never loses sight of this difference. ‘Smaug’ is a robust and rollicking second film, an absolute delight from beginning to end, filled with astounding visuals and rousing action. There’s so much more to discuss about the film, but maybe it’s better to leave some surprises. And as the film throttles towards its cliffhanger ending (something Jackson never did with ‘Rings’ but is fully embracing here), you’ll literally yell at the screen at the prospect of having to wait another year for ‘There and Back Again’.