First Look Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug ★★☆☆☆

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Goodness, is it really a whole year since we last joined Bilbo on his adventure to slay a dragon and reclaim a stolen kingdom? Yes, twelve months have passed for us, but for Bilbo it doesn’t look as if he’s much closer to getting back home to his home comforts in Hobbiton. Indeed, Peter Jackson’s overblown and patience-testing 8-hour-plus trilogy (spun out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s charming and simple 276-page children’s book) goes on a massive detour for much of this film, no doubt in an effort to stretch the story out as much as possible. It all becomes incredibly messy and at times downright boring.

At the end of Part 1 we left Bilbo, Gandalf and our band of weird dwarves as they trudge their way to the Lonely Mountain (their lost kingdom). Things that happened at the beginning of the book where deliberately made to seem climactic so the rhythm and structure of Tolkien’s story has already been bashed out of shape and this second instalment only complicates matters. It barely has a structure and feels even more like a video-game than the first film, where our group of many characters get themselves in a difficult situation and have to escape (from elves, from trolls, from Orcs ect, from Stephen Fry ect). Because Jackson and co have inserted Orcs,  beasts and dark lords where they don’t belong, there is a lot of threat and horror to this reimagining than is really necessary. It’s plain they desperately want this to not just match but perhaps even rival The Lord of the Rings in terms of scope and scale, and by striving towards this aim the filmmakers misunderstand the beauty and power of Tolkien’s delicate story of a quiet soul thrust into a wondrous and sometimes perilous world.

There are a cluster of good things about The Desolation of Smaug amidst the clutter and the commotion. A spectacularly staged water ride (involving dwarves and barrels) comes across brilliantly. Luke Evans offers a memorable and affecting performance as a human who helps out our protagonists in a time of great need. But the downsides are too big and notable, one of them being the appalling special effects on show. Peter Jackson is his own worst enemy really, since he created an astonishing world with an amazing use of CGI and real-world technical achievements with his Lord of the Rings trilogy and makes the links between this Hobbit series and those stories very clear. However, the CGI on show here is cartoonish and very silly – indeed, the giant spiders inhabiting a particularly creepy forest look laughable. You’d see more realistic effects in a DreamWorks animation. Eleven years ago, I was shocked at the full-on terrifying nature of the spiders in Chris Columbus’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Now, in 2013, I found it impossible to be scared of these eight-legged beasts as they looked like they had just stepped out of a Shrek sequel (albeit a particularly violent one).

The high frame-rate gimmick is still problematic. Though I could have done without the 3D, I’m cautious not to dismiss high frame-rate technology as rubbish too quickly as I believe it does some interesting things, but at the moment the overall effect makes it feel like we are watching a pantomime. There is nothing filmic about this film. Whether you like this or not it is up to you. The high frame-rate makes it feel as if we are watching something rather televisual and, as I said last year with the first film, the look of the whole thing is a million miles away from that of The Lord of the Rings.

I gave An Unexpected Journey the benefit of the doubt. I had my problems but overall it was a generally entertaining affair. The Desolation of Smaug, with all its overlong fight-scenes, bad jokes (one involving a dwarf flirting with an elf using an innuendo about his penis) and Orlando Bloom cameos, is an odd and tiresome bore. Even a Benedict Cumberbatch-voiced dragon can’t save things. In the end, I’m not exactly sure what we have here, but whatever it is it certainly isn’t Tolkien.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), directed by Peter Jackson, is released on cinemas in the UK by Warner Bros. Pictures, Certificate 12A. 

This review was written and published in association with The National Student. 

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Second year BA Film & English Student. Watches too many films and enjoys good novels.

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