In part two of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, our merry band of dwarves continues its journey to The Lonely Mountain to reclaim their homeland from the mighty Smaug.
Like An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug doesn’t feel like a film in its own right, but a segment of a trilogy that should be watched back to back to be fully understood. Yet while it continues to suffer from the decision to hack Tolkien’s modest novel into three parts, this time events match the grand scale of the film’s atmosphere.
The way Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens include prequel fodder for The Lord of the Rings, ingeniously interwoven with the events of The Hobbit, helps this film to achieve the required tone perfectly. The material about Dol Guldur and the Necromancer, fleetingly referenced in Journey, now feels like it leads somewhere, and like it has relevance to the main plot. A scene where Gandalf (Ian McKellen) explores the ruined fortress is one of the best bits of the film.
It’s darker and larger in scale than Journey, and more worthy of its lengthy running time. Jackson’s horror roots come to play, particularly with spiders in Mirkwood that make Shelob’s Lair look like Santa’s Grotto. It’s surprisingly gory too, with plenty an orc decapitation to hand. Things still aren’t as dark or serious as Rings, but if they were it wouldn’t be The Hobbit.
Welcome newcomers include elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace), father of Legolas (Orlando Bloom); Bard the Boatman (Luke Evans), and Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake Town. Hopefully Jackson doesn’t let Martin Freeman, James Nesbitt and Fry share a scene, or it might feel a little too QI.
As in Journey, aspects of the film feel too stretched out. Once they arrive at the desolation, in spite of how well done the scenes here are, they go on far too long. Also, a sort-of romance between the girl from Brave (Evangeline Lilly) and a dwarf whose name you probably can’t remember [clue: it’s not Bombur] was not something that was missing from the book. We even see the scene where Gandalf and Thorin (Richard Armitage) meet for the first time, something which is as uninteresting as it sounds.
The visual splendour matches the very high bar set by part one. The CGI seems to have improved to a point where it almost looks real, and the in-camera visuals such as the Waterworld-esque Lake Town set are also remarkably rich. Jackson’s vision is creative and quirky, with a trippy Mirkwood sequence showing the director is still prepared to take risks.
After a year of waiting we finally get to see the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch), and it doesn’t disappoint. Given the build up, it was hard to see how a CGI creature could provide adequate pay off, but the effort that’s clearly been put into the character in terms of design, quality of CGI and the way his scenes are directed, makes for impressive viewing.
The action cranks things up a notch, too, managing to be seamlessly well done and constantly breathtaking. This is an action-packed film and the ingenuity and precision of these scenes mean that there is never a dull moment.
It wasn’t necessary to split The Hobbit into three, but if you’re going to do it, do it like this. Jackson’s understanding of the source material, and ability to adapt it in a way that should please fans and heathens alike, has created a fantasy film surpassed only by his original Tolkien trilogy. December 2014 can’t come soon enough.