Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Peter Jackson has done it again. Not only has he brought a decades old novel to the silver screen but he’s given it such life, such character and such vision that you can really believe in it. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was arguably some of the finest film-making in modern history and at the same time remain faithful to its source material. Such was the effect of the trilogy, that it was only a matter of time before Jackson turned his attentions to the more light-hearted novel that J.R.R. Tolkien had created before even attempting LOTR - The Hobbit. The first film installment of this sub-series, An Unexpected Journey, launched back in December 2012 to good reviews and an even better box office result. This only begged the age-old question - can a sequel be as good as the first? Step up chapter 2, The Desolation of Smaug.

Taking place straight after the events of the first, Desolation gives us our heroic Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) embarking on a journey across Middle-earth accompanied by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and a whole host of other dwarves. Their objective? To help Thorin to reclaim his throne as King Under The Mountain from the evil dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Along the way they must deal with shape shifting bears, giant spiders, mysterious elves, orcs and even nefarious politicians (yep, that’s right) before they even encounter the great dragon himself.

If you’re expecting a huge epic like LOTR, then this isn’t quite the same. If anything, it’s more of a “dumbed-down” version. This, however, makes it considerably more light-hearted than its predecessors and deals with fewer dark themes, which makes for easier viewing than LOTR and the previous chapter. It’s not as grand, not as epic and not as disturbing as the others, but Desolation really doesn’t have to be. The novels were aimed more for children and that’s exactly how Jackson wants us to see this - it has a perfect blend of comedy, action and drama and in that respect it’s a perfect all-rounder. Kids may have been put off by the monsters in LOTR but there’s very little here to worry them. Well, maybe a dragon.

Speaking of which, it is the titular character that truly steals the show. Smaug is, arguably, one of cinema’s greatest dragons thanks to the way he is brought to life. He is so well detailed and created that he looks more realistic than most of the other actors in the film! Benedict Cumberbatch performs amazingly as the fire-breathing wyrm, his voice being the perfect mix of calmness, eeriness and forcefulness that it’s very difficult to envision anyone else in the role. He’s unrecognisable thanks to being able to change his voice so easily and effectively. The other actors also perform well and there’s even an especially surprising turn from Orlando Bloom, who reprises his role as elf Legolas from LOTR. Bloom seems to have settled into the role now, allowing him to flesh out the character of Legolas a little bit more. 

The film looks absolutely astonishing, making LOTR and the last installment seem less impressive, and something that is both good and bad. It makes Desolation seem like the pinnacle of Jackson’s creativity and visual representation of Middle-earth and makes it the most visually impressive of the series, but it also indicates it relies very heavily on visual effects rather than conventional means of action. Granted, all of Jackson’s films thus far have done that and it would be exceptionally difficult to replicate the majority of what happens without visual effects. The problem here is that the effects can get in the way of the story and sometimes we’re so blinded by what we see on screen, that we forget there’s a story to be told here.

When we do focus on the story, it’s actually flawed. There are huge sections of the film that deal with the relationship between the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). The film intends to portray their blossoming romance but does it so quickly and suddenly; it doesn’t quite work and doesn’t feel as natural as it should. Due to the fact that Jackson created Tauriel just for the film, it doesn’t sit well within the “The Hobbit” narrative either. This constant referral to the romance also jars the whole story, instead of focusing on the main storyline we are forced to watch this coupling of dwarf and elf. This to-ing and fro-ing between storylines also adds numerous plot holes and events that are never referred to again. It’s a shame because if Tauriel was either cut out or had reduced screen time, the film may have flowed better and allowed us to see more of Smaug.

Overall, Desolation is a fine entry to an already established series and nearly improves on all aspects over An Unexpected Journey. It’s funnier, quicker, more action-packed and looks far more impressive and makes the world of Middle-Earth more accessible for younger viewers. Smaug is simply amazing and has earned a place in Hollywood as one of the finest cinematic dragons of all time, thanks to an outstanding performance by Cumberbatch. The film falters hugely in terms of plot however, attempting to tell too many stories in one installment with the relationship between certain characters focused on unnecessarily. Still, it makes for a hugely enjoyable watch and is arguably one of the finer films of last year. Well done, Mr. Jackson.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug gets a 4/5.



The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug at CeX

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