The Desolation of Smaug follows on from what was grounded in the first entry for The Hobbit trilogy. Bilbo and Gandalf join Thorin Oakenshield and company to continue on their quest to claim the Arkenstone from Smaug the Terrible, the dragon responsible for scattering the dwarves of Erebor. Yet, just as we learnt in An Unexpected Journey and the original book, one does not simply ‘claim the Arkenstone’ (it was my mission to fit that in here somewhere). What’s a quest without a few dilemmas, eh? Not a very good one.
The secondary threads in the story, introduced by director Peter Jackson last year, begin to grow alongside the main plot. Azog the Defiler, the series’ secondary antagonist, ensures that his personal vendetta for Thorin’s head is fulfilled, whilst Gandalf and Radagast the Brown make way for Dol Guldur to investigate the emergence of a Necromancer.
Whilst some see these plot lines as excuses to bloat the short child’s tale into three films, it only makes me understand that Jackson cares about Tolkien’s lore a great deal, making it exist within the same universe as The Lord of the Rings and not just before it. The main story is just as memorable, with tweaks added to make it more suitable for the big screen. Think of it as a larger loin cloth for Gollum’s ‘precious’.
Unless you’ve been living in a hobbit hole for the past year, I’m sure you will know that three of these ‘tweaks’ are new characters not existent in the book, created for the story by Jackson himself. Legolas (I’m convinced Orlando Bloom is an elf; he hasn’t aged a day since his Mumakil-slaying days), the she-elf Tauriel and Bolg, Azog’s second in command. Each of them contribute a great deal to the story, particularly as they star together to reinvent the memorable sequence in the book’s ‘Barrels Out of Bond’ chapter.
Also, for those concerned, yes, the elf pair is as badass together as you had hoped – I dropped my chocolate muffin in the cinema because I was in awe from all the orc-killing!
Performances from characters existing in the lore were just as encapsulating. Benedict Cumberbatch’s role as Smaug the Dragon stole the film as well as the Lonely Mountain, overshadowing brilliant performances from Martin Freeman, Stephen Fry and many others. Together, they contribute to what is a considerably darker tone than the first film, more of what we were used to ten years ago. Alongside Jackson’s eye for iconic locations and striking character design, it altogether gives it that Middle Earth feel that we have come to admire. Who even needs to see New Zealand?
When I went into this film, I couldn’t help but bear in mind ‘the sequel rule’, the infamous, pre-determined logic that the second consecutive film will be about as underwhelming as having toast for the main course when you just lapped up some stilton-stuffed mushrooms with cranberry relish for starters (I can thank BBC Recipes for giving me some class there). The Desolation of Smaug just about destroys that rule, still proving this trilogy has what it takes to show its beloved, big brother sequel trilogy a trick or two – grab your handkerchiefs, hobbits, you’re going on quite an adventure.
For a three glorious winters a decade ago, a cheerful bearded man delivered a trio of spectacular and gorgeous Christmas treats to cinemas around the world. Rich in detail, monumental in scope and universally acclaimed, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings is a supreme achievement in modern cinema. It would take a brave man to even attempt to repeat the feat.
And yet, after years of fannying about in development hell, last year came An Unexpected Journey. The first of a whole new trilogy of Tolkieny goodness, a chance to revisit Middle Earth and relive some of those precious memories.
Or that was the idea, anyway. Unfortunately for many, An Unexpected Journey never quite managed to take flight in the way that it’s esteemed predecessors did. Of course, The Phantom Menace, this was not. Sure, it took a while to get going, but once it did it still had plenty going for it. Gollum, those wonderful Middle Earth vistas, hair-raising action, Sir Ian in that big hat. It was all quite lovely, but it wasn’t perfect.
So, one year on, where are we? What of Smaug?
Opening with a neat flashback in a familiar pub, Desolation breezes out of the gates and takes flight through a seeming infinity of action and plot towards a roaring climax with one helluva dragon.
As with every Jackson film, we’re clocking in here at close to three hours, but it’s three very fast hours. Indeed, as strange as it sounds, I find myself wanting more time with these characters once the film closes out. Voluminous as this film is, it’s clear to see some of the cuts he made that will surely be slotted back in come the inevitable extended DVD.
That being said, we’re not missing any great detail here, and of course, many purists will gripe about the inflation of a slender tome into a 9 hour uber-trilogy. To be honest anyone who does is missing the point. As an adaptation of a book, a few liberties are taken and Jackson crams in extra details from Tolkien’s own writings, but as a film, a slice of cinematic entertainment, it works very well indeed.
In fact, one can’t quite shake the feeling that the film is trying to undo the sins of its forebear: it’s notably short on the plot-light standing around in the first film, and heavy on the zippy action and story development of the earlier trilogy.
In trimming out much of the expositional mud that tainted the first film, here we have a pace and lightness that characterises Jackson’s best work. A multitude of action sequences, each as dazzling and entertaining as the last clatter along while a plethora of characters and beasties zip across the screen in breathless fashion.
Of course the film isn’t short of flaws. While all are fun, some of the action sequences seem a tad unnecessary, particularly elements of the final Smaug showdown, which runs a tad long. But it’s a small gripe when other elements are so rousing. The much touted barrel set piece in particular is, excuse me, barrels of fun. A particular moment involving rotund dwarf Bombur had me grinning very wideley indeed.
Meanwhile, Gandalf’s adventures into the appendices continue to engage, although never quite take full flight despite the delightfully trippy introduction of big-bad Sauron.
The sprawling cast all seem to be having fun, and sink their teeth into the little screen time they’re given. Of course, some of the dwarves innvitably become background fluff, but kudos must go to Lee Pace as uber-bastard Elf king Thranduil, who is a nice counterpoint to Elrond and Galadriel. Big up also to Aryan uber-hunk Orlando Bloom who almost steals the film as Legolas. His succession of ridiculously over the top but fun action beats is an obvious but pleasing nod to his famed over the top scenes in the original trilogy.
She-elf Tauriel is also decent addition, adding much needed femininity to an otherwise entirely blokey affair. Although the hokey subplot about her and fit dwarf Kili is a bit lame, it doesn’t detract greatly from the rest of the film.
Stephen Fry is pleasingly unctuous as the self serving Master of Laketown, although a tad underused. It would be no surprise if many of his excised scenes end up in next year’s extended edition.
Elsewhere, we find Weta digital delivering awesome spectacle in the effects department, particularly with that titular dragon, who really is a sight to behold. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a characteristically wicked performance, his voice echoing through the Dwarvish halls like a supersized Darth Vader. Much like the Gollum scene in the first film, his scenes with Bilbo are one of the highlights of the film.
Come the final cliffhanger ending (which may wind a few people up), it’s hard to fault Jackson’s effort. While still falling slightly short of his own very high bench mark, it’s a definite improvement on Part One. A succession of glorious New Zealand postcard views, wonderfully esoteric characters and spectacular action, Desolation of Smaug is tantalisingly close to being that new Middle Earth film we wanted. Good work, Sir.
Bring on part 3!