Review: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug / Cert: 12A / Director: Peter Jackson / Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro / Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly / Release Date: December 13th
Is it churlish, ungrateful even, to admit to enjoying something immensely but then go on to have a good old moan about how much better you think it could have been? It's a question for others to answer but despite all the hugely entertaining sequences and welcome additions in this, the second instalment of the Hobbit trilogy, you're left with a sense of what might have been. A sense that had the original objective of adapting the novel into two films prevailed then we might well have been reflecting on a pair of films every bit as breathlessly thrilling and emotionally involving as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Instead we're stuck with something that, although frequently exciting and never anything less than visually dazzling, is still hamstrung by overly protracted diversions and some needless padding that sees the final third of the film in danger of losing its narrative focus.
The Desolation of Smaug finds our Hobbit hero Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) and his Dwarf cohorts still pursued by the Orcs from whom they'd made a narrow escape at the conclusion of An Unexpected Journey, the eagles presumably not being willing to drop them off at the Lonely Mountain and thereby solve a whole heap of problems. Soon they're involved in a wonderful sequence of chase scenes that see them embroiled in a fight to the death with giant spiders in Mirkwood and (the film’s highlight) a superb set-piece in which they escape the Wood-elves’ domain hidden in wooden barrels that then career dangerously down river rapids as they're assailed on all sides by Elves and Orcs. Throughout scenes such as these, the technical accomplishments are astounding, reminding us just how good Jackson is at delivering moments that seamlessly meld live action with cutting edge CGI (the spider attack is as good as anything he has put on screen in this regard). At the heart of most of this is Freeman's Bilbo and it is when the narrative focuses on him and his journey that the film works best. Freeman is once more tremendously engaging as the reluctant hero of the tale, emerging as the driving force on the quest to reclaim the Dwarves’ gold, even as we begin to see the first subtle seductions being wrought on him by the prize he claimed from Gollum.
During these early travails, we're reacquainted with Legolas (Bloom), who at this point is a long way from the kinder, more benevolent Elf we got to know in the earlier films. Here Legolas, like the Wood-elves themselves, is a lot less Enya and a bit more Bowie, the evident sense of superiority the Elves feel over other races and their unashamed self-interest combining to produce a threat to our heroes that is an interesting twist on what we've come to expect. Into the mix is thrown Tauriel (Lilly), a She-elf, who kicks more Orc arse than any other character in the film. Considering the paucity of female characters in the original story, Tauriel is a very welcome addition, and Lost’s Evangeline Lilly delivers a performance of real verve and charisma.
Then of course there's Smaug himself (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), the great dragon whose appearance has been anticipated perhaps more than any character in Middle-earth (with the possible exception of Sméagol). Smaug is the villain whose shadow casts a pall over everything preceding his arrival on screen and when we finally get to see him he doesn't disappoint. Emerging gradually from underneath a mountain of gold coins and jewels, the gradual reveal is the dragon equivalent of the first time you see that Star Destroyer on screen in Star Wars, and his game of cat and mouse with Bilbo is the highlight of the final act. It's a shame then that it all goes a bit Super Mario when the Dwarves arrive on the scene, with diminutive figures leaping off ledges and swinging off ropes and chains in order to activate a series of massive mechanical constructs designed to defeat the final level boss. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, filmmakers like Jackson are perhaps now so preoccupied with what they can do that they don't stop to think if they should. Less is sometimes more.
Thankfully, Starburst saw this preview in the lower frame rate, meaning we were spared the merciless exposure that 48 frames per second wreaks on the sets and props of a movie like this. Consequently the slower frame rate means that, by and large, this world looks like the Middle-earth we know and love from the Rings films. However, we still have the additional narrative insertions designed to link these events explicitly with the saga that is to follow, as well as some sub-plots that drag on concerning the Dwarves who have been left behind in Lake Town. So we have Gandalf going off to Dol Guldur to face a resurgent Sauron with lots of portentous talk of 'The Nine' and the end of the world, and a love story that seems designed purely to give Tauriel a reason to be where she is (it’s a shame they couldn’t find a different motivation for the character). Much of this feels like padding designed to stretch the story out over three movies but worse still, it often occurs at moments in the film where you feel like you're being dragged away from the events that you really want to see. Almost everything that doesn't concern Bilbo and his quest feels like a great big foot coming down hard on the brakes, and it’s at times like that (my lad) you really do start to notice that your bum is starting to get quite numb.
The decision to make three films may ultimately be the reason why these movies fail to stand alongside The Fellowship et al. Which is a shame because the ingredients for something truly exceptional are all there. Ultimately though, the things that are good about this instalment are abundant enough to make most people overlook its flaws and oh heck, perhaps we're just being a particularly grumpy Christmas Grinch with a dash of Veruca Salt thrown in. There is a lot here to love, enough to leave us looking forward to the final instalment next year. It's just that we can't escape the feeling that, wonderful though it is to still be on it, the journey really should have come to an end by now.
Expected rating: 8 out of 10