Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry
Running Time: 161 min
Plot: Embarking on the middle chapter of their Middle-earth saga, Bilbo et al continue to walk, run, fight and float their way towards the Lonely Mountain. And a dragon called Smaug. PRONUNCIATION GUIDE: Sch – mowg. Try saying Mowgli from out of the Jungle Book, then add a ‘Sch’ to the beginning like how Sean Connery talks, so then you have Schmowgli, and then take away the ‘li’. SCHMOWG.
Murked by the woods. They don’t call it Murkwood for nothing.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a sequel to a prequel and a prequel to a sequel within a trilogy which, cash-in aside, exists to supplement the chronologically subsequent Lord of the Rings saga, the release of which preceded The Hobbit films by a decade. Call it Middle-earth Wars: Episode II, if you will. The first instalment of Jackson’s Hobbit adaptation, An Unexpected Journey, was a bumbling three hour piece of action figure hocking garbage, worthwhile only for Gollum and his riddles in the dark (which incidentally was the best chapter of the book). The Desolation of Smaug is a vast improvement in terms of action and spectacle but it’s dragged down by needless additions and a case of overlongitis.
After a useless preamble laden with cameos and references to the LOTR trilogy, the film jumps back in where the last left off; Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves trekking through the wilderness on the way to the Lonely Mountain. Unsurprisingly, their road proves treacherous and as in the book the company encounter all manner of perils, from shape shifting Bear-men to territorial Elves to oversized arachnids plus a forest filled with shroom fumes. Meanwhile, expanding on what was a mere line of exposition in Tolkien’s tale, Gandalf and Radagast head to the lair of The Necromancer, who has been gathering an army and corrupting the lands with his Black Speech (that’s like evil magic, not jive). Further alterations to the source material come in the form of Azog the Defiler’s irritating obsession with Thorin and a ‘love’ triangle between Tauriel the Elf, Kili the Dwarf and Legolas the Orlando. All these are mere distractions for Bilbo, whose path ultimately leads to Smaug: full time dragon, part time desolator.
In their eagerness to expand the appeal of The Hobbit movies by chucking in a female lead, romantic heroics and some ‘scary’ two bit Uruks into the mix, Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson have ruined what could have been an excellent adaptation. ‘Knob Jokes and inter species flirting… really, Peter?’- That’s what original Hobbit director Guillermo Del Toro is probably saying, and rightly so. In Tolkien’s beloved books the world is pure and blessedly free of double entendres… and fit elves wouldn’t fall for four foot vagabonds.
Screenplay criticisms aside, this second instalment is superior. Tonally it’s more unpredictable and it’s far more visually impressive too, with the sets of Mirkwood and Laketown being of particular note. Conflict was sorely lacking in An Unexpected Journey, but it’s in plentiful supply this time round. Jackson has run creative riot with the violence; spiders and orcs get dispatched in deliciously bad taste, harking back to his early career and films like, erm, Bad Taste.
For central characters like Bilbo and Gandalf there is plenty to do. McKellen, perfect as always, gets to do his first proper magic fight since the Balrog and Martin Freeman really gets a chance to shine. The effects of the ring become apparent, and the whole ‘almost getting killed every day’ thing has forced Mr. Baggins to become a tougher and perhaps more selfish version of his former self. While the Dwarf actors are no doubt talented (case in point James Nesbitt) their faculties go to waste on toilet humour – apparently an acceptable substitute for character development. A few of the thirteen don’t even get lines, which must be hard to take when you dedicate three years (on and off) to a project like this. Stephen Fry plays himself on a bad bay, Evangeline Lilly does her very best (but Arwen she is not) and Orlando Bloom is happy to not be working for Uni-Qlo.
Smaug is of course the main attraction and things really heat up with the introduction of the Cumberbatch-voiced fire breather; his sheer presence is on a scale not seen before, and it demands to be seen on a suitably big screen. Jackson’s Smaug may not have the same bite or cunning as Tolkien’s terrifying creation but his realisation by Weta Digital is top notch and he is really, really massive.
If you’re bothering to read this and are a Tolkien fan in any way then you’ll inevitably go and see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug regardless, but just to confirm: it is worth seeing. It’s better than the first by a Mordor mile; it’s considerably darker and jam packed with rollicking action sequences and dizzying effects. Most importantly, The Desolation of Smaug is it’s own beast and not another soulless, shimmering pretender to Lord of the Ring’s crown. Despite such praise, there remains a Mumakil in the room; ‘The Hobbit’ should have been a standalone film and not a trilogy.
Almost forgot! Ed Sheeran credits song. Nope. No thanks.