The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th December 2013
This time a year ago, my mind was blown by the technical wizardry of Sir Peter Jackson’s adventure into High Frame Rate territory in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (which means that if you see The Hobbit movies at 48 frames per second, it looks altogether more “real” and in-your-face than anything you’ve seen before. This has its good and bad points, but you can’t say our local hero of cinema ain’t innovative).
Largely, the first film worked well for its narrative engagement and bright characterisation, and if one can get past one’s indignation that “they’re making three films out of a one hundred page book!”, viewers can still be guaranteed a rollicking good time in this second instalment.
The Desolation of Smaug thankfully eschews redundant flashbacks and kicks straight off from where we left the dwarves and Bilbo Baggins, winding their way towards Erebor on a quest to reclaim the dwarves’ kingdom from Smaug the dragon (voiced beautifully by that paragon of British Evil, Benedict Cumberbatch). It takes them over two and a half hours to do so, because along the way our merry band, now slightly less frivolous than in the opening film, encounter characters we’re familiar with from the LOTR series (gosh, those elves are handsome!) and fall into various scrapes, including an exciting bit of white-water rafting and a fantastic spiders’-lair scene which will infect the nightmares of arachnophobes forever.
This time the story belongs less to Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and more to exiled dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), although pleasingly some of the other dwarves get more in the way of character development this time, and there are some meaningful “human” moments as the flame of romance flickers. Evangeline Lilly is especially good as Tauriel, Head of the Elven guard (and one of several roles implanted into the movie by Jackson and co-writer Walsh – purists may baulk, but civilians are sure not to mind).
In fact, it’s the vibrant supporting cast (liberties included) which keeps things interesting in a pretty standard fantasy narrative: escape the baddies, climb the mountain, slay the dragon. The only slightly bum note is Stephen Fry rolling out his typical caricature as the immoral Master of Laketown. Surprisingly, he is saved by Fast & Furious 6’s Luke Evans (now forgiven) and the others who convince us to take the drama seriously.
The aforementioned high frame rate is less jarring 12 months on, and with sweeping camerawork the set-pieces look incredible – the evocation of the Elven city is particularly stunning. However, some may still have problems with their suspension of disbelief since The Hobbit is by definition supposed to be fantastical and cinematic, yet the scenes shot outdoors in New Zealand’s enticing landscape look too real at times, rendering Gandalf and the dwarves like actors running through forests in (albeit amazing) costumes. That said, Bilbo’s worn corduroy jacket is impressively blemished, fingernails are grimy, and Smaug the dragon writhes with glistening scales. This is one sequel that leaves me optimistic about next year’s finale.