It must be said that one could perhaps be apprehensive to re-enter Middle Earth. After 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey left a rather bitter (not to mention dull) taste in the mouth, the second film in the trilogy arrived with little anticipation. That said, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a real surprise, a very enjoyable delve into Tolkeinland that serves as a fresh and very satisfactory sequel.
The Desolation of Smaug rejoins Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield and his dwarven company with the Lonely Mountain now in sight. However as they near their goal, their chance of succeeding to reclaim the Dwarf homeland looks slim. To make things worse, the group now has to introduce themselves to the story’s primary villain, Smaug, the dragon guarding the golden horde of Oakenshield’s clan.
The most impressive element of The Desolation of Smaug comes in the form of its stunning set pieces. From a barrel ride through terrifying rapids, to an Orc battle in the middle of Laketown, the mix of choreography and special effects is visually stunning and very well constructed. Some very complex action scenes are effortlessly realised thanks to Peter Jackson’s direction.
Much has been made of Gandalf’s absence for most of the film, but this is definitely a good thing for two reasons. Firstly, it enables the wizard to venture into an interesting subplot involving ‘The Necromancer’, a character that made a cameo in the first film. Gandalf’s absence also lets us have a better look at our team of dwarves, fleshing them out into characters in their own right rather than leaving them as the ‘ensemble’ they were in the first film.
A wonderful performance comes in Stephen Fry’s portrayal of the Master of Laketown. Despite having relatively little screen time, Fry plays the hubristic character with the perfect amount of tongue-in-cheek comedy that has earned him a place as a national treasure. The real ‘treasure’ of the film, however, lies in ourfirst encounter with Smaug. In a scene that even supersedes the ‘Riddles in the Dark’ sequence from An Unexpected Journey, we see Bilbo meet the tyrannical dragon in a verbal chess game of wit, duplicity and perception. Benedict Cumberbatch immaculately portrays Smaug with fearsome menace, whilst injecting him with gentlemanly charm that makes the character unsettlingly likeable.
It must be said that The Desolation of Smaug isn’t without flaw; some of the issues that crippled An Unexpected Journey are still very much present in the second instalment. The first film suffered issues with pace which ultimately came down to the artificial division. Splitting one book into three films meant that the first film comprised of a collection of episodes with an artificial crescendo. This is still prominent in the first half of The Desolation of Smaug. The band of dwarves travel from set piece to set piece facing, in each instance, perilous danger before being rescued by someone/thing. This maintained the episodic (and ultimately boring) vibe of the first film. However once Bilbo and friends reach Laketown mid-way through the film, the pace issues are resolved and the film gains a more consistent narrative.
Whilst this may be- quite literally- last year’s news, there must be some mention of the High Frame Rate (HFR) used in The Hobbit saga. The use of HFR is both a positive thing but also comes with severe drawbacks attached. The clarity of picture is superb, especially when combined with the constantly moving camera, surveying every inch of the Middle Earth landscape. But at the same time it almost makes everything too clear, making Tolkein’s weird and fantastic creatures look unnatural, fake and more like a side show at a drab amusement park.
The Desolation of Smaug is still a real improvement on its predecessor, proven by just how quickly its hefty 2 hour 41 minute long runtime went by. It still has significant flaws and still can’t be placed on the same pedestal as The Lord of The Rings series, but it has done enough to get audiences looking ahead to the trilogy’s conclusion next year.