The first dollop of The Hobbit in 2012 was a schismatic film – staying close to the source material, it was a carefree romp complete with singing dwarves, a pioneering but slightly jarring frame rate, and some overlong scenes that alienated people who expected some of the epic action and grandeur they’d encountered in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
In contrast to the infamous dinner party scene that dragged open An Unexpected Journey, this year’s film starts with a cameo from director Peter Jackson hastily chewing a chicken leg. It’s a fitting scene-setter as The Desolation of Smaug is a film that gets straight to the meat of the matter. Continuing on their quest Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarves are being pursued by orcs and the diseased Mirkwood forest is just one of the obstacles that stands between them and the Lonely Mountain.
Visually stunning, the frame rate quirks of the last episode have lessened. The action flows smoothly, and while here’s still a high definition starkness, with none of the warmth of film, it quickly becomes normal and in a way it lends itself better to the dark and sodden sets encountered. In general you don’t have as much of a chance to sit and ponder because thankfully there’s an nrelenting momentum to the story.
Tolkien purists may well balk at the introductions of new characters, but they go a long way to creating that momentum. The fiery-haired elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) who is torn between Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, and the dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner) adds something essential to mix, allowing us to see character development that was sorely lacking from the last helping. As it becomes evident that a greater evil than expected is at play, we see the hitherto omnipotent Gandalf struggle. Martin Freeman again is excellent as Bilbo, particularly compelling in his scenes with Thorin (Richard Armitage) whose character begins to darken as the group draw closer to their goal.
The Ring remains a consistent motif throughout the film, and through Bilbo we see hints of the seductive allure we know it has. But the Arkenstone, the gem that lies guarded by Smaug in the Lonely Mountain, is a more overt representation of the dangers of greed and corruption, and the quest to reclaim it brings about bigger questions of loyalty and motivation.
There’s an epic feel to this instalment, it’s an episodic journey as the group encounters one fascinating character and situation after the next. Stephen Fry plays the wonderfully repulsive leader of Laketown, and Luke Evans is introduced as Bard the Bowman, a hero-in-waiting for the final instalment. It’s Smaug’s eventual appearance that makes the film, Benedict Cumberbatch voices the narcissistic beast obsessed with vanity, wealth, and power. The famous encounter between Bilbo and Smaug is the standout scene of the film, and acts as an interesting mirror to Bilbo and Gollum’s meeting in the first film.
Anyone unconvinced by last year’s offerings should be in for a treat. The film retains some of the carefree spirit of An Unexpected Journey but introduces deeper, darker themes served up with a far more compelling storyline. Despite getting tied up a little toward the end, it maintains an incredible momentum, and it contains what must be the most entertaining scene involving beer barrels in film history. The Desolation of Smaug is the Hobbit film that many people expected to see a year ago and will have you eagerly awaiting December 2014.
Published in Gazette Group titles (Swords Gazette, Malahide Gazette, Blanchardstown Gazette, Castleknock Gazette, Dundrum Gazette, Dun Laoghaire Gazette, Lucan Gazette, Clondalkin Gazette) on 19th Dec 2013.