There’s a lot riding on the second installment in The Hobbit trilogy. The first film, An Unexpected Journey, did fairly well (if grossing over a billion dollars worldwide is your definition of “fairly well”) but received some less than favourable reviews, primarily due to its length and some issues with the High Frame Rate technology. Though the second film, The Desolation of Smaug, is not without its problems, too, I’m happy to report that this return to Middle Earth and the company of Dwarves, is far more intense and bolder than its predecessor.
To start the film – after a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from our humble director – writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro take us right back to the very beginning of how wanna-be Dwarf King Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) first meets wizard Gandalf The Grey (Sir Ian McKellen). It’s a clever way of reminding us about the quest without necessarily having to yank bits out of the previous film (which no doubt almost everybody in the audience would have seen) in order to provide some context as well as some new back story.
We are then quickly returned to our Dwarf company as they continue to evade the Orc hunting party that trails them. Once this happens, we are plunged into the several parts of the story that encompass this film, in a pace much more befitting the series. From venturing into Mirkwood Forest and battling giant spiders, to escaping Wood Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace) and the barrels in the river, arriving in LakeTown and then of course the encounter with Smaug.
As with all of Peter Jackson’s directorial dealings in Middle Earth realm, we’re treated to vast panoramic scenery and landscape shots courtesy of obligatory aerial fly-bys. It’s literally a tourism ad for the wilds of New Zealand, although this time around it was a little more CGI and artificial set heavy due to the locations being a lot less nature-based. Most notably, the kingdom of Erebor under the mountain, which resembles the Mines of Moria sequence from Fellowship of the Ring, but on an even more grandiose scale if that was even possible. At the opposite end of the spectrum, LakeTown looks like a ramshackle Venice with its many boats and slum-like terrace cottages barely floating on the water.
The film feels a lot darker too, which is possibly the lasting touch of Guillermo del Toro’s hand in the film. Particularly the spiders in the Mirkwood Forest sequence; arachnophobics beware, your skin will be crawling for a while after that sequence. Additionally, there are the scenes when Gandalf goes to Dol Guldur, where the Necromancer resides. Sharp protruding edges and craggly rock faces give these sequences a decrepit, decaying and all-round creepy tone.
The anticipated barrels in the river sequence feels like you’re literally riding the white-water rollercoaster with our troop, as they try to avoid recapture by the wood elves or death at the hands of the Orcs. It’s a breathtaking, nail-biting sequence and well worth the length, effort and possibly ridiculous amounts of money spent on the few minutes of footage. And this isn’t even taking into consideration our title character, the dragon Smaug. He is every bit as magnificent, stupendous, gargantuan and intimidating as you’d expect a greedy villainous dragon to be.
His characterisation and the detail is striking and precise, a testament to the WETA team and Benedict Cumberbatch‘s motion capture work and voice in bringing him to life. Martin Freeman‘s Bilbo Baggins gets more opportunity to shine, particularly doing a lot of the heavy lifting in saving the Dwarves’ bacon on several occasions, but it’s his overall change in character that is most notable. He’s far less meek than in our first encounter, and pay particular attention to Baggins’ reaction after slaying a spider in Mirkwood over nearly losing the ring. It’ll send chills down your spine, foreshadowing what we know is to eventuate in The Lord of The Rings. To quote Gandalf to the hobbit in one particularly poignant scene… “you’ve changed”.
Another welcome addition to the cast is Luke Evans as Bard. He’s not too dissimilar to Aragorn in that he feels a sense of duty to his people and is destined for greater things. Also keep a look out for a masterful performance from Steven Fry as the master of LakeTown. Meanwhile, the battle for most majestic power stance seems to end in a tie between Richard Armitage’s Thorin and Lee Pace’s Thranduil.
My main gripe with the film is the same with the first installment – its length. Having known that these films were originally meant to be in two parts, it feels like with both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug that there’s a fair bit of fat that could’ve been cut to keep the films leaner. Sure, if you want to add more in, knock yourselves out in the extended editions on the DVD/Blu-Ray releases, but we didn’t need to see them here. That said, Smaug‘s cut is much more considered than Journey and is an improvement in many respects.
The wizard Radagast The Brown (Sylvester McCoy) makes a brief but almost useless appearance in this film, whilst the inclusion of Tauriel (a very badass Evangeline Lily) as the she-elf captain adds some much-needed female presence, however she’s literally a fiction generated by the script-writers purely for the purpose of having a female presence and potential romance sub-plot with Aidan Turner’s Kili, all of which was never a part of Tolkien’s original novel. My only other disappointment was the lack of screen time given to Beorn (Swedish import Mikael Persbrandt) our skin-changing man who can become a bear and provides safe refuge for the company at the beginning of the film. I can only hope that Beorn gets some additional time in the extended edition as I found him an intriguing character that helps to build the political gravitas of the over-arching story, the impending war to come and the involvement of all the people’s/races of Middle Earth.
The film is definitely an improvement on the first, and in true Jackson style we’re possibly given a bit of an overdose, but these films have never been known to do things half-way. There is a definite sense that the third and final film will be a behemoth, well worth the wait, but I thoroughly enjoyed this spectacular spectacle and await with baited fiery dragon breath for the final chapter.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Runtime: 161 minutes
Editor’s Note: I’d like to add to this review that the 3D and high frame rate work to much greater effect in the new film. There are some fantastic 3D elements that definitely add to the experience – how about that bee! – though it would be hard to argue, as in Gravity, that it’s necessary to see the film in this format, but it’s a notable improvement on the first film all the same. This is in particularly due to the problems seen in the first film due to the high frame rate – e.g. scenes looking like they were being sped up – not being an issue this time around. Peter Jackson has admitted to “softening” the HD to achieve this, and there is a great article on it over on The Guardian.
The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug is released in Australia on 26th December 2013.