When the announcement came that J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was getting dusted down and given a new lick of paint for the big screen, I was like a kid who had eaten all the blue Smarties. With The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson had done what many thought could never be done; to condense Tolkien’s books, which took the author twelve years to write and were not published until his retirement, into a trilogy of films that were incredible to watch, relevant, and could be enjoyed by anyone willing to give them a go. This time, however, it would be Guillermo del Toro who would be bringing us his vision of Middle Earth. There have been plenty of decisions that are announced during a film’s pre-production, only to be ripped apart on the internet by legions of devoted fans (Ben Affleck as Batman, Matt Smith as the Doctor), but having del Toro on board felt like the right choice. The writer/director has given us one of the best films of this century, Pan’s Labyrinth, but also knows how to set up attention-grabbing, fast-paced set pieces with the Hellboy films. Then came the legal nightmare concerning the rights to The Hobbit, leaving the film in limbo and forcing del Toro to move on to other projects. Eventually MGM and New Line Cinema managed to sort out their differences, only it would be Peter Jackson once again bringing Tolkien’s pages to the screen in what was, at first, going to be two films. This was followed by the shock news that The Hobbit would be split into three films. Depending on what versions you read, altogether The Lord of the Rings is over a thousand pages; The Hobbit takes up around three-hundred. When I sat down to watch part one, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was more than a little bit concerned. What can Jackson do that has not already been done with The Lord of the Rings? How is he going to stretch this out over three films? Luckily, my worrying had been a waste of time as Jackson once again gave us a near enough perfect version of Tolkien’s work. A year later and part two has arrived: The Desolation of Smaug. While The Two Towers is, for me, the best visit so far to Middle Earth, The Desolation of Smaug gives it a good run for its money.
The star of the show is the dragon himself, Smaug the Magnificent. If you thought Gollum or King Kong were impressive, wait until you see this film’s fire breathing villain. Sean Connery’s dragon in Dragonheart, while impressive, was a fairy tale character brought to life. With Smaug, Jackson has created a living, breathing creature covered in scales that mirror the light around them, with a face that, despite being a mass of teeth, quickly swaps from gleeful menace to incensed rage, and a stomach that glows whenever the giant lizard is preparing to spurt flames. Just as Andy Serkis did an incredible job in making Gollum a real flesh-and-blood character, Benedict Cumberbatch does the same with Smaug. In Tolkien’s book, Smaug is a conceited creature with a wicked sense of humour (“You think flattery will keep you alive?”) and Cumberbatch gives us exactly that. Smaug is full of his own self-importance, master of his own little world. When Bilbo runs off with the Arkenstone, the dragon is driven by a violent, childlike fury. It feels like every blockbuster at the moment gives us robots, aliens or smurfs; it’s good to see a CGI character that actually has charisma.
Man of Steel’s Zack Snyder could do with sitting down and watching The Desolation of Smaug. You don’t need almost an hour of non-stop, chaotic action, just a handful of set pieces to keep your audience wide awake. In a year where plenty of films have given us big budget action, Jackson manages to come up with scenes that, for the majority of 2013’s blockbusters, beat them all. The barrel scene is, arguably, this year’s finest set piece (it’s easily one of 3D’s stand out moments) as the dwarves fight off an onslaught of orcs whilst tumbling down rivers and waterfalls. The entire scene is a ridiculous amount of fun and is littered with an impossible to count number of visual gags. Another crowd pleaser is the dwarves wandering through Mirkwood, the dark power of the forest playing with their minds. You get the feeling that, during his time co-writing the scripts for The Hobbit, Guillermo del Toro was responsible for this spooky, visually inventive scene. This is followed by the group stumbling into a giant spider’s nest, featuring plenty of close-ups of the spiders’ fangs and beady eyes.
While An Unexpected Journey focused on Bilbo transforming from a normal, unremarkable person, to finding his courage and becoming a smart, resourceful hero, The Desolation of Smaug is concerned with power in its various forms and how it corrupts. In what is a brief – but no less powerful – scene, Bilbo clutches the One Ring and hisses, “It’s mine. My precious!” Instantly realising who he sounds like, Bilbo is horrified, forcing back tears.
In the first part of The Hobbit trilogy, Thorin (Richard Armitage) was a noble, if somewhat arrogant, warrior. With part two, we begin to realise that all of this is façade, that Thorin is just like his grandfather, obsessed with gold and power, everything and everyone else coming second. Rather than help Bilbo escape from Smaug, he blocks his way, demanding to know if Bilbo found the Arkenstone, before standing aside.
Ian McKellen can play Gandalf in his sleep now, but it’s easy to forget just how brilliant he is. When Gandalf first appeared in The Fellowship of the Ring, McKellen literally took Tolkien’s beloved character and placed him on the big screen. Gandalf is wise, stubborn, hiding ferocious power behind his vagabond appearance. With The Desolation of Smaug, Gandalf does not get as much screen time as in other films, though when he is around, he firmly holds your attention.
Richard Armitage gets much more to do this time around as Thorin; we begin to question just how honourable his motives really are. When Bard (Luke Evans) warns Thorin that entering the Lonely Mountain will anger Smaug, making the dragon attack Esgaroth, Thorin refuses to listen. His mind on revenge and gold, Thorin continues with his quest, convinced that he will kill Smaug, find the Arkenstone, and that nothing can possibly go wrong.
Once again, The Desolation of Smaug is amazing to look at. Andrew Lesnie, who was cinematographer on The Lord of the Rings films, gives us tremendous landscapes that will once again have the New Zealand Tourist Board rubbing their mitts, while also creating moments that will easily scare the under twelve’s, such as Gandalf exploring the menacing Dol Goldur. All of this is accompanied by another score from Howard Shore, once again giving the visuals a sense of wonder or a slow, steady sense of unease when required.
A large number of critics have blasted The Hobbit films for being lightweight, that they do not examine the blurred line between good and evil that The Lord of the Rings trilogy did so well. Without sounding like I am apologising for Peter Jackson, the reason for this is down to Tolkien’s books. Normally I stay well clear of “The film’s not as good as the book” discussions, frankly (and bluntly) because I feel it’s pointless. Books are a medium that entertain their readers in a particular way, while film is a separate medium that uses entirely different methods to entertain an audience. Saying this, when The Hobbit was published way back in 1937, Tolkien aimed his book squarely at children. When Tolkien wrote the sequel, he wrote for those same children knowing that they had grown up and could handle subtext on how people are not necessarily good or evil, but are capable of both. If Peter Jackson had brought out The Hobbit films first AND THEN The Lord of the Rings, critics would never have mentioned how “kid-friendly” The Hobbit films are.
The one thing I will agree with critics on is that, while both Hobbit films are thrilling to watch from beginning to end, you do feel they very occasionally struggle to stretch out their nearly three-hour running time, and that perhaps two films would have been the better choice. With The Lord of the Rings films you could argue that some scenes and characters from Tolkien’s books were cut because Jackson was struggling to keep each film at three-hours (poor Tom Bombadil has yet to make it to one of Jackson’s films). For both Hobbit films, you feel that Jackson sometimes struggles with the material he has to work with and that action scenes, which are not in the books, are thrown in to compensate for this.
This is the only reason I would stop at giving The Desolation of Smaug five stars. I appreciate that I am, once again, being ludicrously picky here and this does not take away from the fact that the second Hobbit film is another near-faultless blockbuster in a year that has given us Iron Man 3, Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness. Peter Jackson will, I feel confident in saying, do the same with next year’s third and final part, There And Back Again, making his film versions of Tolkien one of the finest franchises you could ever sit down and watch.
Rating: 4 out of 5