Doesn’t time fly? It barely feels like a year ago I was sat at the Royal Film premiere of The Hobbit having just returned from a 3 week trip to beautiful New Zealand during which time I saw a lot of the filming sites. I’m a big Peter Jackson fan. I loved the Lord of the Rings films and I adore his earlier work like Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners and Braindead. But despite my enthusiasm for Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo I confess The Hobbit: An Extraordinary Journey didn’t quite grab me in the same way as The Fellowship of the Ring. It was always a bit of a stretch making 3 films out of the very slender tome that is The Hobbit and the first film felt padded and overlong. The Riddles in the Dark sequence was extraordinary but one sequence does not a film make.
So going into The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug I was rather prepared to struggle for 2+ hours before we finally got to see what I’d come for – Bilbo’s confrontation with the dragon Smaug. Thankfully I was completely wrong. I hugely enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug which hits the ground running and doesn’t pause for breath.
We join Bilbo and the dwarves as they run for their lives chased by Orcs. Tired and weary they seek refuge with Beorn – a skinchanger. Sadly we barely get to know Beorn before the company is on its way again. Unlike the first film which was a tad more leisurely the narrative here is zippy and the story focused. The company start the film hiding from orcs, before battling spiders in Mirkwood forest, being captured by elves and mounting a daring escape before passing through Lake Town on the way to the Lonely Mountain. The film fair hurtles along throwing its motley crew from one disaster and inspired set piece to another.
Martin Freeman is a fantastic Bilbo Baggins. Highly likeable, funny and brave he gives his all in every shot. He really does carry the whole enterprise and manages it effortlessly. Bilbo is a much braver hobbit in this film and the dwarves would be completely lost without him. If he’s not battling the spiders in Mirkwood (arachnophobes may want to hide during that section – the spiders are truly nightmare inducing), he’s saving them from Thranduil’s clutches or helping them find the hidden door in The Lonely Mountain. This is now very much his quest – he’s not reluctantly along for the ride anymore. Freeman is also very good at conveying how the ring that he carries is starting to change him. He already can’t bear to be parted with it resorting to an act of great violence at one stage when the ring temporarily leaves his possession leading to the most chilling line in the film (“Mine“). The evil he’s unwittingly carrying is starting to take its toll and Freeman subtly, delicately shows us the effect it’s having on Bilbo’s psyche.
Luke Evans is a welcome addition as Bard the Bowman. A craggy, dour, resourceful determined sort (who is non the less ridiculously ruggedly handsome (think Aragorn)) he carries with him the responsibility of his children as well as the legacy of Smaug’s previous attack on Lake Town. His life is not exactly aided by the dwarves who he smuggles into Lake Town. But we sense he’ll get his moment to shine in the third film. That final black arrow he’s been keeping all these years just might come in handy…
The film features comely elves in the form of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lily). Frankly neither should really be in the film. There’s more than enough going on in the main narrative that we don’t need bonus elves. Thankfully the fact that they’re awesome makes their presence easy to forgive. Orlando is a commanding and entertaining presence as Legolas (even if rather unsettlingly he doesn’t appear to have aged a day since The Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed – the man either has a picture in an attic or lives on pure blood). He struggles against his father Thranduil (the most hilariously diva-esque elf you have ever seen – more interested in grandiose speeches and tossing his flaxen locks than stamping out the orcs and growing threat outside his borders) and has rather an eye for Tauriel. Who unfortunately has developed a fondness for dwarves. Tauriel is a great character, she has an impressive physicality (ie she really kicks ass), is convincingly lethal with a bow and is brave enough to defy Thranduil and do what she believes is right. Evangeline even manages to pull off making elf ears look attractive. Legolas and Tauriel shouldn’t be in the film but I’m very glad they are.
With so many characters vying for attention it’s inevitable that some fall by the wayside. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is sadly rather sidelined as he’s off looking for the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch who brings the Necromancer to life with terrifying jerky movements while speaking in the Black speech of Mordor. Similiarly the dwarves all rather become one slightly unremarkable mass. But Stephen Fry has a whale of a time as the pompous leader of Lake Town and Richard Armitage is suitably brooding as the increasingly unhinged Thorin.
The film looks beautiful. The locations are stunning and the film is littered with simply lovely moments (Bilbo emerging from the Mirkwood forest to golden light and a swarm of beautiful blue butterflies) and the action set pieces are superb – especially the barrel scene which is pure Indiana Jones style fun as the dwarves battle eleves, orc and the perils of water as they escape down the river inside wooden barrels.
And finally we reach the Lonely Mountain (as clearly the eagles that helped them at the end of the last film were just too lazy to take them there) and the wonders of Smaug. And oh goodness he is just utterly beautiful. He looks exactly like I imagined he would look when I read the book. Those people at Weta are so so clever. Absolutely huge, red and scaly, glowing from within (especially when he’s angry) with his fire, his skin darkened and roughened in places to show his age. Smaug is completely and totally perfect. Not to mention utterly terrifying. It’s a superb performance from Benedict Cumberbatch. And it is very much a performance. Smaug is a fully realised performance – he is not just voicing him. I get quite antagonised at the lack of respect shown to motion capture performers. Andy Serkis really ought to have been Oscar nominated for his performance as Gollum and he is heartbreaking as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes – a performance he got very little love for. Cumberbatch’s impressive vocals are put to very good use as Smaug. Someone tweeted me that in their screening of the film a speaker broke at the might of Smaug’s first roar and certainly sat in the Imax Cumberbatch’s gravelly vocals were practically making the seats vibrate.
The confrontation between Smaug and Bilbo is easily the best scene in the film. Smaug seems to enjoy toying with this little creature he’s found. He’s smart enough to realise Bilbo is there to steal the Arkenstone from him but he seems to find his presence amusing and is taken by Bilbo’s flattery. Perhaps he’s just a lonely dragon at heart. Unfortunately Smaug is also completely and totally psychotic, very unhappy with anyone touching his precious beautiful horde of gold and jewels, utterly convinced of his own majesty and invulnerability and more than happy to flambe a poor Hobbit once he gets fed up playing cat and mouse with him for being daft enough to enter his lair. The whole sequence in the Lonely Mountain is just a total joy to watch. It’s all so wonderfully realised- the majesty of the dragon, the piles of gold (that rain from Smaug’s belly as he flies overhead) and Cumberbatch’s performance coming together to form a truly exceptional creation. In fact my only complaint about the Smaug sequence is that it’s not twice as long.
Being a middle film Desolation suffers a little with the fact that it gets everyone where they need to be in the narrative without there being any pay off – as everything will be resolved in the final film. It’s ending is a tad abrupt – but my what a killer last line…
The Desolation of Smaug is now on general release.