The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review | Fanboys Anonymous

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review

Posted by DAJB Sunday, December 29, 2013
I can trace my love of all things fantasy directly back to the first time I read The Hobbit at the age of around nine and, as such, it's always had a special place in my affections. Maybe that's why, despite his success at adapting The Lord of the Rings for the big screen, I had doubts about Peter Jackson's ability to do the same for my childhood favourite. The Hobbit is, after all, a children's book at heart and the decision to turn it into an epic trilogy has ruffled more than a few giant eagle feathers.

The second film in that trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, is in cinemas now, so just how well is Jackson's return to Middle Earth faring?

Hobbit 2 movie poster with Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Sylvester McCoy, Evangeline Lilly and Orlando Bloom
Tauriel, Legolas and Radagast aren't in the book, but they aren't above photo-bombing the movie!
Looking ahead, looking behind

I'm sure I'm not giving away any spoilers if I say that the over-arching plot line of The Hobbit trilogy is the tale of a group of dwarves—assisted by the wizard Gandalf and the titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins—on a quest to slay a dragon and reclaim their lost homeland, the underground kingdom of Erebor. This film, The Desolation of Smaug, is the second film in the trilogy and, like Bilbo (again played by Martin Freeman), it has a tough task ahead of it.

Martin Freeman star of the BBC's Sherlock and The Office
Holding a sword to his own head was a trick Bilbo
learned from repeated viewings of Blazing Saddles.
The first film in the trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, had a mixed reception. Some critics took issue with its more farcical, pantomime elements, while others complained that the insertion of characters from The Lord of the Rings added too much gloom to a story which is fundamentally a light-hearted romp.

Personally, I can live with both: I like the fact that Jackson and his co-writers have delved into Tolkien's appendices in search of material that ties the story into the bigger events of the LotR saga and, after repeated viewings, I've even come to accept that the slapstick comedy is not actually out of place but is, in fact, entirely appropriate to a story written for children.

My main criticism of An Unexpected Journey is that it was simply too similar to The Lord of the Rings. Yes, it was necessary to visit many of the same locations (Hobbiton, Rivendell), but too many of the shots had a distinct sense of déjà vu about them. Some of the helicopter shots of New Zealand's admittedly spectacular mountain ranges, for example, looked as if they'd been constructed from unused footage shot for LotR and then had the dwarves added with the aid of a little CGI. Or maybe elvish magic.

If An Unexpected Journey had been made before the LotR trilogy, I believe it would have received a rapturous welcome from critics and audiences alike, just as The Fellowship of the Ring did. Instead, the predominant feeling it inspired was a slightly sagging, seen-it-all-before sense of fatigue. And that, then, is the epic task ahead of The Desolation of Smaug. Ultimately it not only has to entertain, it also has to distinguish itself from The Lord of the Rings; to show us something we haven't seen before.

Lake Town is governed by Stephen Fry
Lake Town.  Like Venice.  You know, if Venice had fewer palaces and more ramshackle wooden hovels.
Over hill and under hill

Showing us something we haven't seen before is, perhaps, where The Desolation of Smaug comes into its own. The Weta team's mastery of CGI has clearly grown in the years since LotR. As impressive as its visual effects were at the time, the reliance on puppetry for the ents, for example, is starting to look more dated with each passing year.

There isn't an abundance of new environments in this film, although we do get to see the water-logged Lake Town and Legolas's homeland, the Woodland Realm. Paradoxically, however, it's the return to old haunts that feel newest. A flashback to The Prancing Pony in Bree feels very familiar in both appearance and atmosphere, but still manages to seem more "real" than we remember. The corrupted forest of Mirkwood now feels less like a movie set and more like a huge, dense and threatening world of its own; a world of trees that stretches out for miles in every direction, every branch dripping with malevolence.

Smaug voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch from the BBC's Sherlock
In film-land, all the bad guys speak with English
accents. Yup - even the dragons!
The success of the special effects in The Desolation of Smaug, however, is not going to be judged on the film's environments. The real revelation in LotR was just how convincing a CGI character could be. And, just as Gollum lit up every scene he graced in that trilogy, the success of this film was always going to depend to some extent on just how convincing a talking dragon could be.

I am fire ...

Well, without giving away any spoilers, Smaug doesn't disappoint! Perhaps the last big budget movie to try putting a CGI dragon on screen was Dragonheart, in which a Sean Connery-voiced Draco lumbered heavily and had the facial animation of a Jim Henson puppet. As depicted in Alan Lee's iconic illustrations for Tolkien's book, however, Smaug is a thin, serpentine creature and this film stays true to that image. He slithers through piles of gold  like an eel through water; he skitters up walls with the agility of a sprightly gecko; and, most importantly, when he speaks his face registers every subtle curl of the lip or raising of an eyebrow.

Thanks to this lovingly detailed animation and Benedict Cumberbatch's (sadly, almost unrecognisable) vocal talents, Smaug is not just a monster to be slain. He is very much a character in his own right. Which is important. If there's one thing I've come to appreciate over the years, it's that convincing, interesting and engaging characters can be even more important to a story than its plot. In this respect, Smaug delivers in spades. But what about the other characters?

Company of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield
From left to right: Dopey, Grumpy, Bashful, Paddy, um ... someone, someone, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.
Confounded dwarves

There is a fundamental problem at the heart of The Hobbit. Even in book form, it just has too many dwarves! Whether reading Tolkien's novel or watching Jackson's movies, it quickly becomes impossible to tell one from another and, without the ability to do that, it's not easy to empathize with any of them. So what if one dies? We still have twelve more!

Heartthrob Aidan Turner, the vampire from Being Human
Thorin, Kili and Fili always won the smouldering
look contests.
Disney managed to differentiate his seven by giving each dwarf a name which encapsulated its character. Tolkien's dwarves already have names and so, as a film maker, Jackson has had to rely on giving each a distinctive appearance and ensuring that they each have an individual characteristic which is regularly brought to the foreground. In An Unexpected Journey, Jackson began this process. It wasn't entirely successful (there are just so damn many!) but, as with the Fellowship in LotR, I was prepared to accept that the characters' personalities would become increasingly recognisable with each successive film. That faith appears to have been misplaced.

The dwarves in The Desolation of Smaug are, if anything, even less distinguishable than they were before. Thorin, the brooding group leader is obviously recognisable; the white-bearded Balin has a few lines which mark him out as the sage old voice of wisdom in the group; and Kili (played by Being Human's Aiden Turner) has a whole new romantic sub-plot woven around him which, frankly, challenges our suspension of disbelief. Otherwise the other ten dwarves are largely interchangeable, identifiable (if at all) only as "the fat one who looks like Obelix," or "the one played by James Nesbitt."

sexy Evangeline Lilly hot female elf
Unable to master a Scottish accent, Evangeline
Lilly failed her audition for Merida from Brave.
Uninvited guests

Some of the book's other characters also suffer from a similar lack of attention. Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake Town is wholly wasted. Radagast makes a fleetingly brief and unnecessary appearance. The shape-changer Beorn is allowed only a single conversation in the entire film. This may or may not be true to the book (it's been some time since I last read it!) but—given the amount of extraneous material added in by Jackson and his co-writers—surely Beorn is one of the few characters who would have benefited from a little extra screen time?

This tendency to reduce characters to cardboard cut-outs is all the more surprising given the importance placed on others who aren't even in the book. Whilst it had been widely reported that Legolas would have a cameo in the film, he and Tauriel (a female wood-elf captain played by Lost's Evangeline Lilly) are much more than that.

Far better fleshed out than some of the book's actual characters, they leap and wield both bows and blades like genuine action heroes, even eclipsing many of the film's principal heroes. As much fun as these characters are, however, at times it's hard to escape the conclusion that if Jackson hadn't allowed them quite so much screen time, he would have been able to do a better job of fleshing out the characters he already had to work with.

Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things!

So if it's light on character moments, how does The Desolation of Smaug fill its two hours and 40 minutes? In a word: action. Despite its failings in other areas, the film is never less than entertaining. It moves along at a cracking pace, a succession of bravura set-piece action sequences following hard on the heels of each other. It's like a medieval fantasy version of Die Hard with the cars replaced by orcs on wargs and the big final explosion replaced by a dragon who belches fire.

Fan favourite Orlando Bloom returns in The Hobbit
Finally, Legolas gets another chance to use the one
expression he showed in The Lord of the Rings
Each individual action scene is well choreographed and a lot of fun. In fact, the film moves so quickly from one set-piece to the next that—for most of its length—it feels much shorter than its actual running time. Sadly that feeling dwindles during the final confrontation with Smaug. It's well done but, once again, Jackson has been unable to resist adding (another) sequence not in the book—this time, a showdown between Smaug and a handful of dwarves. It's cleverly constructed but, by the end, it's difficult to escape the impression that the film as a whole is far too long. (Well, it wouldn't be a Peter Jackson film without a protracted closing sequence now, would it?)

Critics have been divided over The Desolation of Smaug. Some have awarded it a miserly two out of five which, given the lack of attention to characterisation and the over-extended final scene, is understandable. Others have given it a jewel-encrusted four out of five which, paradoxically, can also be justified, given how well the individual action scenes are put together. Interestingly, very few have plumped for a score between the two, which—taken as a whole—is, I'd argue, what the film deserves.

The middle film of a trilogy is always a difficult proposition and that was always going to be especially true of a trilogy based on a book as short as The Hobbit. Given those underlying challenges, this film could have been a disaster. As it is, whilst there's no denying that the film is flawed, it's still a lot of fun, and—if you haven't seen it yet—I'd suggest it's definitely one to add to your list of films to see in the New Year.

What about you? Have you had a chance to see The Desolation of Smaug yet? If so, let us know what you thought. Does it languish under the gloom of Mirkwood, or sparkle with the lustre of the Arkenstone?

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