WARNER BROS. PICTURES (2013)
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Graham McTavish, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Adam Brown, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, Orlando Bloom, Stephen Fry, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lee Pace, Sylvester McCoy, Luke Evans
“What have we done?”
No, that’s not the key output from Peter Jackson’s post-production notes. It’s the desperate words of our favourite burglar Bilbo as he stares into the distance at the conclusion of The Desolation of Smaug, the second installment in the Hobbit trilogy.
But it could also have been from Jackson’s post-production notes.
Following the events of An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo (Freeman), Gandalf (McKellen) and the dwarves (…see cast above) have the evil computer-orc Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) and his horde of minions on their tails as they continue their quest to the Lonely Mountain. For safety, they are led to the home of shape-shifting man-bear Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) who resists the temptation to eat them and instead leads them to Mirkwood for safe passage. Except, it isn’t safe as the woods carry a disease that consumes any who enter – that’s if the giant spiders don’t get you first.
Once free of the wood, mainly thanks to Bilbo savaging the spiders under the spell of the Ring, the new Fellowship is captured and taken to the Elf King, Thranduil (Pace), for imprisonment. It’s here that Kili (Turner, I know, one of the dwarves getting some story…!) falls in love with the newly-introduced Elven warrior, Tauriel (Lilly) and thus beginning an ill-advised romantic triangle…with Legolas (Bloom) who returns…just…because.
The dwarves need to escape their plight in order to defeat the evil (massive) dragon Smaug (Cumberbatch) and reclaim their kingdom. Problem is, a resourceful Bard (Evans), a mean Mayor (Fry), a snivelling not-Grima-Wormtongue-honest (Ryan Gage) and Rada-Gungan (McCoy) all have their own ideas as to the realisation of the mission as well. Also, Gandalf is incapacitated by the mysterious Necromancer of Dol Goldur (i.e. Sauron) and the tombs of the ancient nasties, the Nazgûl are empty. Something big is going down in the background that threatens not just the mission to the Mountain, but Middle Earth itself.
There’s still more that is crammed into the 161-minute runtime that would take that long to describe. Some say ‘more is better’, though in the case of The Desolation of Smaug that is not the case at all.
Firstly, the overall cinematography is great, as is now the standard for Jackson. The sprawling landscapes of New Zealand are once again captured with a grand majesty and the visual spectacle unfolding is a joy to look at (in the correct frame rate). Elements (elements) of the movie capture the spirit of Middle Earth that An Unexpected Journey did so well, however, the new additions to the saga – i.e. the original content – is at odds with the feel and tone and just falls flat – I’m looking at you, barrel scene. That scene stretches on and on…and on…and on…and on until it becomes ridiculous – we know by now everyone will be safe for some reason (many a deus-ex-machina again), and the incessant overuse of the unnecessary Legolas loses its appeal very quickly. It’s cool to see his archery skills and some decent kills, but everything great about him in the Rings trilogy is amped right up now.
All those arrows, yet he fights his nemesis Bolg with a sword?
As with the previous entry, the orcs and their ilk in The Desolation of Smaug look unconvincing and the CGI shows badly. It’s a real shame that actors in suits couldn’t have been utilized for a much better effect. Smaug, on the other hand, looks incredible. He looks terrifying as he slinks across mountains of gold, stalking his Hobbit prey and the effort spent on his character paid off big. Cumberbatch nails the voice-work, bringing a charming menace to Smaug and instantly rocketing him to the top of the list of compelling characters here. Sadly, Jackson can’t help but underutilize the character and promote him less as a cunning manipulator but more a hapless goon, incapable of finishing off helpless dwarves.
The love-triangle between Kili, Tauriel and Legolas that is introduced is painful to watch. Why, Peter, why? The dialogue that comes with it whiffs of Vieux Lille and the whole thing smacks of desperate filler to justify a trilogy of movies that the source material simply cannot support. It’s not compelling due to the utter lack of chemistry or development and should’ve been either trimmed, written properly or cut. The time could’ve been put to much better use like, say, developing the legion of dwarves we are supposed to care about. Who are the dwarves?
The acting is on-par with the previous entry, Freeman raises his game once more and Armitage is sound as the leader of the pack. Lee Pace camps it up as Thranduil in a performance that is more confusing than anything. Luke Evans is solid as newcomer Bard, with Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage appearing as a slapstick Denethor and Grima. It all gets a bit weird. It’s easy to see why Viggo Mortensen ran a mile from taking part (in what would have been one of the ultimate movie piss-takes)
Where the movie loses steam is the constant need to have the good guys in peril, only for them to be saved at the very second. This happens constantly and removes any stakes that needed to be raised. We know Bilbo, Gandalf and Legolas make it out, so why attempt to trick us otherwise? Smaug could’ve BBQ’d the new Fellowship a hundred times over, but the need for dramatically slow fire-breathing took precedence, but not at other less-important moments. Sigh. It’s tiresome how often the idea was used.
Of course, there are some good moments in the movie. The scene with Bilbo and Smaug together in the gold-filled halls is fantastic (akin to Bilbo’s scene with Gollum in An Unexpected Journey) as the massive dragon/cat stalks its hapless Hobbit/mouse. The doom-laden, foreboding discovery of the open crypts of the Witch-King and Ring-Wraiths at the High Fells of Rhudaur is laced with a quietly chilling darkness. Speaking of which, witnessing the Ring’s strangling grip begin to take hold of Bilbo is also strangely disconcerting. The ending is an infuriating cliffhanger, especially when having to wait a year for the next movie.
The Desolation of Smaug has moments that are very good, but it’s impossible to not wonder why those good elements weren’t fused with what’s been and what’s to come in order to create a two-movie epic. It would’ve positively helped the saga, but I guess the OCD-need for a trilogy took hold of the studio, their own Precious consuming them. The Desolation of Smaug is the trilogies Attack of the Clones, but still fails to match that standard. Too much deviation from the source material and not enough quality to fill the blanks.
December 20th 2016