16 December 2013

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG- Review

This review will contain plot details about An Unexpected Journey and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but will not contain spoilers for the new film.


Peter Jackson's second Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug, begins with a prologue that takes place before the first film, so that's also where this review will begin. When Guillermo del Toro was poised to write and direct these adaptations, there were only two films- An Unexpected Journey and There And Back Again. It became three once del Toro left the project, and Jackson took over as director.

Perhaps that explains why this feels like something of a kit-bashed middle chapter, made using bits of two halves from two different films. Bilbo Baggins ploughs forward in his quest as a burglar for the dwarves of Erebor with new resolve, on their way to reclaim their mountain from the fearsome Smaug. Along the way, they tangle with a shape-changing bear, some giant spiders and a corrupt township, but the larger threat is the dragon, and a greed that could claim the hearts of all in Middle Earth.

An Unexpected Journey memorably ended with Bilbo saying "I think the worst is behind us", as viewers finally stood up in the cinema, stretched their legs and massaged their aching bums. Bilbo has the last word in The Desolation of Smaug too, as part of a cliffhanger that may well have you agreeing with him once again. I stand by what I said about the length of these films a year ago- even with J.R.R. Tolkien's appendices added in, these three films shouldn't need to be more than two hours each.

While the sequel is a slightly more energetic and story-driven film than its predecessor, it somehow unfolds just as slowly. You find yourself internally screaming that it would've been more helpful of those eagles if they'd dropped them a little closer to the lonely mountain. Would that have been a little too convenient? Would it have been any more convenient than the sudden arrival of massive birds to help our heroes escape (again)? The eagles were clearly improvised as a new climax to the first film, after the three-way split, and the second seems to rattle along as planned.

But Peter Jackson is demonstrably a very skilled filmmaker, so even when he's making baggy, ramshackle stories like this one, there's still a lot to be enjoyed. Again, the standout player is Martin Freeman, who has now made the character of Bilbo his own, and frankly doesn't get enough to do amongst all of the other characters, including thirteen dwarves who remain mostly indistinguishable, (Ken Stott's Balin and Richard Armitage's Thorin being the notable exceptions). His comic timing is impeccable, and there wasn't enough of that in the first film, but there's sadly even less opportunity for him to use that in this more serious chapter.

The technical flourishes, like Howard Shore's music, Andrew Lesnie's cinematography and WETA's production design, are consistently absorbing, and there's a much appreciated return to the aesthetic of The Lord of the Rings, insofar as the reduced amount of green-screen and superior set-building. When the company arrives in Laketown, you could be watching a film from a decade ago, and I mean that more positively than when I say the same thing about some of the digital effects- the decision to motion-capture the Orcs means that these characters don't hold a candle to the make-up and costumes of the original Orcs, let alone to an iconic digital character like Gollum.

There's undoubtedly more going on in this instalment, even if we didn't need all of it. The Laketown stuff is straight from the book, and characters like Luke Evans' altruistic Bard and Stephen Fry's slimy, repellent take on The Master are captivating to watch. Elsewhere, we have a return for Orlando Bloom as Legolas, and Evangeline Lilly is parachuted into the midst of this sausage-fest as a new elf character, Tauriel. Their action scenes play out like they're sexy ninjas, but the use of Tauriel as love triangle fodder is disappointing, and less than Lilly deserves for the obvious commitment in her performance.

The imbalance in the scenes that feel vital, as opposed to those which feel redundant, actually sucks the momentum out of the story. While the Rings films earned their longer running times by trimming subplots and characters who slowed things down, Jackson is bringing us to three films by adding subplots and characters from Tolkien's more arcane writings. The most welcome of these is a necessary and more cinematic explanation of where Ian McKellen's Gandalf gets to when he abandons the company to deal with the same vague rumblings of a phantom menace that were so boring on the last run around, but there's little resolution to that in this one.

The film's also characterised by an approach of building setpiece upon setpiece, and the best of these is the iconic Mirkwood escape, which finds our heroes rolling down a raging river in barrels. The additions of Legolas, Tauriel and those pesky Orcs serve to ratchet the scene up to eleven, and this is where Jackson makes the best effort to give one particular dwarf, Bombur, a distinguishing moment. Elsewhere, the half-hour climactic sequence starts in stunning form with the revelation of Smaug, but actually wears on so long that you start to feel sick of the character.

When it's just Bilbo facing Smaug, with the massive difference in proportion seemingly making it impossible for the Hobbit to survive their showdown, it's jaw-dropping stuff. Benedict Cumberbatch provides the voice and facial expressions for the dragon, and he's a fully-realised nightmare, representing the best combination of performance and special effects in the whole movie. But when all of the dwarves wade in too, the scene becomes a massive game of hide-and-seek, and an escape plan that involves an improbable shmelting accident- it's more convoluted, and unfortunately typical of the films so far. From there, only a deeply unsatisfying cliffhanger stands between us and the credits.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a darker, sporadically more exciting film that still turns out to be a lot like its predecessor- full of good bits, padded with dull bits, and generally too damn long. The novelty of returning to Middle Earth has worn off since the first film, and I will be much happier when Peter Jackson is done with his exercise in $200 million completism, and gets back to making more ambitious films with more reined-in resources. It's a year to wait until There And Back Again- while I'm still interested in the conclusion, I definitely feel like I can wait for it.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is now showing, in too many formats to list, in cinemas nationwide.
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If you've seen The Desolation of Smaug, why not share your comments below? I still haven't seen any films in the HFR format, but if I get time between now and February, this may be the one...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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