Review – The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

We’ve had goblins and Gollum and now it’s time to enter the dragon for this breathless and sure-footed middle slab of Peter Jackson’s second Middle Earth saga.

The Desolation Of Smaug is a major improvement on An Unexpected Journey and, come the cliffhanger ending, you'll be eager to find out how they get there and back again

The Desolation Of Smaug is a major improvement on An Unexpected Journey and, come the cliffhanger ending, you’ll be eager to find out how they get there and back again

The bumpy beginnings of Bilbo Baggins’ unexpected journey were a worrying sign for this elongated adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s children’s novel.

However, just as The Two Towers was an an improvement of The Fellowship Of The Ring (and the best of the The Lord Of The Rings trilogy in this reviewer’s opinion), Jackson has rediscovered his Middle Earth mojo following the relative disappointment of An Unexpected Journey for this hugely enjoyable follow-up.

There's trouble brewing for Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

There’s trouble brewing for Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The now standard near three-hour running time this time doesn’t feel like a slog as the film zips from one frenetic set piece to another, while the introduction of new characters and environments enrich this expansive universe rather than weigh it down.

No concessions are made for the uninitiated as the story picks up where it left off, with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) accompanying a 13-strong band of Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their lost treasure from the dragon Smaug. Their journey is made more perilous by the fact they’re being hunted by a bloodthirsty group of orcs, while the identity of the evil Necromancer who has been marshalling the orc forces is revealed.

The dwarves of Erebor, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) at the door of the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The dwarves of Erebor, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) at the door of the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

In spite of the film’s length, the first thing that’s apparent when watching The Desolation Of Smaug is its urgency. The decision to stretch a 300-page novel into a trilogy that in all likelihood will last close to nine hours still grates with many, but the flab that bloated much of An Unexpected Journey is trimmed down here.

In the time it took Bilbo to leave the Shire in the first film, our not-so merry fellowship has evaded orcs, encountered a mysterious ‘skin-changer’ and made it to the oppressive confines of Mirkwood. If anything, the film zips about too much towards the end and looses its direction as it attempts to juggle too many balls.

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) comes face-to-face with evil in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) comes face-to-face with evil in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

While the set pieces of An Unexpected Journey were largely underwhelming, The Desolation Of Smaug delivers a breadth of spectacle that reminds you why you fell in love with LOTR. The creepy giant spider sequence in Mirkwood is masterfully done and reminiscent of the nightmarish attack by huge insects in Jackson’s version of King Kong. It also offers Freeman’s one real moment to portray the dehumanising effect of the Ring as a horrified Bilbo recoils at the possessive fury he temporarily succumbs to.

Just as Jackson captures the dark and suffocating mood of the spider sequence, he switches things up in the tremendously entertaining barrel escape from the wood elves. Shot like a roller coaster ride and infused with as much humour as danger, it’s exhilarating stuff.

Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and fellow elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) on the trail of orcs in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and fellow elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) on the trail of orcs in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

And what of Smaug? As a work of CGI, it rivals Gollum and King Kong for sheer impact. Given voice by an oily Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is amusing, arrogant and deadly in equal measure and provides the film with a rousing final act. The interplay between Bilbo, who has been sent by the dwarfs into the dragon’s lair to retrieve a priceless heirloom, and Smaug is laced with tension as the hobbit flatters to deceive in the vain hope the beast will let him leave unscathed.

Freeman has visibly relaxed into the role and gets some lovely moments with his dwarf companions who, by sheer weight of numbers, still struggle to make much of an impact, save for Ken Stott’s Balin and Aidan Turner’s dashing Kíli.

The scenery remains just as lovely in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The scenery remains just as lovely in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The sense of entitlement, as well as the desire for power and its poisonous consequences are themes present in much of Tolkien’s work and are touched on here through a subtle shift in Thorin’s character, nicely played by Armitage.

It’s a shame McKellen’s Gandalf isn’t on screen more as, just as in An Unexpected Journey, he’s the star attraction. That said, the portentous scenes of him investigating the identity of the Necromancer are among the film’s strongest. As well as McKellen, Orlando Bloom also returns as a more impetuous Legolas, who has a personal attachment to Evangeline Lilly’s strong-willed Tauriel (a creation by Jackson and his fellow writers, presumably to balance the male/female scales at least a little bit).

This is a major improvement on An Unexpected Journey and, come the cliffhanger ending, you’ll be eager to find out how they get there and back again. That’s all the middle section of a trilogy can do, right?

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Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

After so spectacularly scaling his own personal Mount Doom with his revered Lord of the Rings trilogy, could Peter Jackson somehow capture lightning in a bottle again with this second epic excursion into Middle Earth?

From the moment Rings was wrapped, Jackson was being called upon to sprinkle that same magic on J.R.R Tolkien’s earlier, much leaner children’s book The Hobbit.

The Hobbit

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – very good, but not without its faults

The New Zealander originally wanted Guillermo del Toro to direct, but after the Mexican horror maestro left the project (he’s down as a co-writer), Jackson took it upon himself to oversee the mammoth undertaking. While it would have been fascinating to see Del Toro’s vision realised on screen, Jackson’s pedigree was irrefutable.

That The Lord of the Rings was made as a trilogy made perfect sense – three books, three films. However, when it emerged that Jackson was turning The Hobbit into not two, but three movies eyebrows were raised and questions asked as to whether this was a bridge too far. Now that An Unexpected Journey is finally here in all its many guises (3D, Imax, 24 or 48 frames per second, take your pick) does it succeed? Yes, but with reservations.

An Unexpected Journey walks a similar path to Fellowship of the Ring; a CGI-heavy prologue lays out the stakes, a hobbit is chosen to go on an adventure, a small band of diminutive people is forged and a life or death quest begins to achieve something bigger than all of them.

Watching An Unexpected Journey is akin to slipping on a well-worn pair of slippers; the restless, swooping camerwork, the stirring Howard Shore score and the jaw-dropping New Zealand locations (seriously, Jackson is a one-man NZ Tourism Board) are all present and accounted for and when the Shire appears on screen it’s like being reuinted with an old friend after a decade apart.

However, even old friends can get annoying as Jackson languishes in the Shire for what seems like an eternity. To be fair, a major reason for this is to introduce us to the 13-strong company of dwarves, led by the heroic Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who come calling at the home of hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) at the request of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Bilbo is urged by Gandalf to join the dwarves on a perilous journey to reclaim their home and treasure from the dragon Smaug and, after much toing and froing belatedly embraces the opportunity.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) reluctantly hosts a gang of dwarves in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) reluctantly hosts a group of dwarves in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

This overly-prolonged first act smacks of indulgence on Jackson’s part and has you wondering if three films really was a sensible idea. But once the gathering hit the road the film finally moves up the gears until a breathless last hour that promises much for next year’s The Desolation of Smaug.

As with his Rings trilogy, Jackson proves he’s no slouch when it comes to the big set pieces. The  stone giant battle in which Bilbo and co unwittingly become a part of is genuinely thrilling and underlines the dangers inherent on their quest, while the dwarves’ and Gandalf’s dizzyingly elaborate escape from the Great Goblin’s cave lair (amusingly voiced by Barry Humphries) and his sizeable CGI army is reminiscent of, though not as impressive as the Mines of Moria/Balrog scene from Fellowship.

However, An Unexpected Journey‘s finest spectacle is saved for the game of riddles between an uneasy Bilbo and the pathetic, wretched Gollum; a masterclass in building tension that pivots the whole film and is the hobbit’s true turning point. The wonderful Andy Serkis dons the motion-capture suit once more to reprise his role as Sméagol/Gollum, whose split personality is equal parts humourous, childlike and disturbing , not least of which when he realises his “precious” ring has been stolen.

Gollum (Andy Serkis) is the star of the show in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Gollum (Andy Serkis) is the star of the show in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The moment when Bilbo, invisible after wearing the ring, holds a sword to the unknowing Gollum’s throat and exercises mercy is really something. It’s at this point that Jackson’s faith in Freeman must have paid off. Freeman, previously best known for his TV work in The Office and Sherlock, shows his acting chops by conveying pity, disgust and humanity in a single look and affirming that this little hobbit is the part he was born to play. Bilbo is our Everyman and Freeman delivers just the right mix of self-doubt, wonder and fortitude.

McKellen is clearly having the time of his life revisiting the mischievous and good-hearted wizard and it’s good to see Christoper Lee and Cate Blachett reprising their roles as, respectively, Saruman and Galadriel; however, Ken Stott’s Balin and James Nesbitt’s Bofur are the only dwarves to make any major impact, while Armitage has yet to fully convince as this tale’s rugged hero in the way Viggo Mortensen managed with Aragorn.

An Unexpected Journey is very good, but it’s not without its faults and fails to match the heights of Fellowship. For many that will be more than enough, but Jackson still has some work to do if he hopes this trilogy will earn its place in cinema’s valhalla alongside his previous fantasy epic.