May 7, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second part of Peter Jackson's three-film epic adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel. I generally hated the first instalment, with a few exceptions, but I had just enough affection left for Jackson's earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy to persevere with the second - albeit four months late on home video instead of in a cinema. It has many of the same problems, but for various reasons it seems to overcome them a little better. The result is a film that's watchable, indeed regularly very enjoyable, but still has enough niggling annoyances to prevent it from holding a candle to Jackson's earlier, vastly superior films.

We pick up where An Unexpected Journey left off, with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and the company of dwarves midway through their quest to the Lonely Mountain and the dragon Smaug who lives there. It's a relief that in this part they do actually reach the mountain, and we do actually get some scenes with Smaug. One of my largest criticisms of the previous film was that so little happened. It doesn't matter which way you slice it, there isn't enough material in Tolkien's novel to justify three full-length feature films. This was always going to hamper the Hobbit movies, and while it absolutely crippled An Unexpected Journey it merely forces The Desolation of Smaug to struggle a little.

So once again there's a lot of padding, and once again the most egregious extra sequences use Gandalf. He's not a major character in the novel; he instigates the plot, and pushes the dwarves along on their quest, but by and large he's out of sight. Here he is beginning his investigations into the return of Sauron, the titular villain of The Lord of the Rings, and that makes bizarre problems for the entire franchise. Why does everybody in The Hobbit films talk about the great war coming, and the return of Sauron - hell, Gandalf even comes face to face with him in this movie, something no one does in The Lord of the Rings, yet there's still going to be that bizarre 60 years in between the two trilogies where no one advances at all. The constant foreshadowing of the War of the Ring irks considerably as The Desolation of Smaug goes on. The Hobbit was written first, and stands alone as a breezy children's fantasy story. In Jackson's hands it has become a prequel trilogy to The Lord of the Rings, and it's wholly unsuitable to the task.

The other major strand of padding involves massively expanding the role that the elves of Mirkwood play in the story. This means a return for Orlando Bloom as Legolas, but also the introduction of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a wholly original character created specifically for the film. I was anticipating hating this addition, but broadly speaking it works incredibly well. This is a younger, sharper version of Legolas (although he unavoidably looks a decade older), and the addition of Tauriel at least gives the trilogy one female character. Of course in an ideal world The Hobbit would have been made as a single three-hour movie, and such additions would have been unnecessary, but if you have to pad out your story then Legolas and Tauriel are a much more successful strategy than the revenge-seeking orcs of An Unexpected Journey or Gandalf's premature fight with Sauron.

As with the first film, the most successful sequences appear to be those taken directly from the novel. Bilbo's meeting with Smaug is excellently staged and performed, and is largely lifted verbatim from Tolkien's own dialogue. While Smaug isn't the best-looking dragon ever produced for cinema - that remains Vermithrax Pejorative in Dragonslayer - he's still pretty awesome, and Benedict Cumberbatch does a good job with the voice and the motion capture.

The actor who impressed me the most was Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman. He had a gravity and a naturalism that's missing from much of the regular cast. I'm aware he's already appeared in a number of high profile films (such as Fast & Furious 6) but I can easily see him becoming a major star on the back of this movie and its forthcoming sequel.

Production values are hit and miss. There's a much greater emphasis on computer-generated effects here, something that was creeping in during The Return of the King but which has completely overrun the Hobbit trilogy. Orcs that would have previously been realised with prosthetic makeup are now entirely animated, and look ridiculously fake as a result. Scenes that would have been shot on location for The Fellowship of the Ring are now visibly shot on a soundstage with CGI backgrounds. The result is a high sense of artificiality about the piece. This artificiality extends to the dwarves, whose hair and make-up is jarringly unrealistic. It's a weird aesthetic overall, that actually makes The Hobbit movies look cheaper than the Lord of the Rings movies, even when the reverse is in fact true.

Based on what's left of the novel to adapt, the third instalment - recently retitled to The Battle of the Five Armies - is fairly easy to predict. Smaug's attack on Laketown will take the first half hour. The titular battle will take the second. That should leave 45 minutes or so for an interminable string of endings, farewells and epilogues. I expect - but an hopeful to be proved wrong - that The Desolation of Smaug will mark the high point of The Hobbit trilogy. It's a very enjoyable movie, and vastly superior to its predecessor, but by God it's an unholy mess of a film. It's self-indulgent, flabby, and all over the place.

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