Surprisingly, the first Hobbit film met with mixed reactions. I’ve never been able to understand why. This second instalment is at least on a par with the first, though that may not be high praise to some. It’s certainly a much more action packed affair, with a breathless succession of fantastic set pieces and thrilling adventures that make the 160 odd minute running time fly by. Frankly, I loved it.
The Desolation of Smaug begins where An Unexpected Journey left off, with those pesky orcs and wargs still on the trail of Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the rest of the dwarfs. All major events from the middle section of the story are present and correct, even though Peter Jackson has played very fast and loose with Tolkien’s original novel, no doubt to the irritation of some purists (though not me). Thorin and company encounter shape-shifter Beorn, giant spiders, wood elves (less wise but more dangerous than their Rivendell kin), Laketown, and of course the magnificent confrontation with Smaug the dragon.
The visual effects department have excelled themselves with Smaug. Not only is he a massive, menacing and scary presence, his vain, wily, greedy, vindictive personality has been tremendously brought to life by Benedict Cumberbatch’s motion capture performance and vocal talents. He is a first rate villain, and the action inside the Lonely Mountain at the finale provides a thrilling and dramatic – if ultimately cliffhanging – climax. Elsewhere Martin Freeman is as fantastic as ever in the lead role, particularly in the delicate conversations with Smaug, a similar scene to his encounter with Gollum in the previous film.
The returning cast all do well, even though there is a lot less of Gandalf this time. He’s busy investigating dark developments in the evil fortress of Dol Guldor with fellow wizard Radagast (former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy). Orlando Bloom’s Legolas also turns up and gets more than his fair share of silly stunts, particularly in the stunning barrel escape which provides one of the film’s most exciting and funny set pieces. Hard core Tolkienites will be less pleased with the introduction of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) who is, by Peter Jackson’s own admission, a character deliberately introduced to provide a female presence. I found her a perfectly acceptable character, despite also providing a fairly pointless pseudo-love interest for Legolas (and bizarrely Aidan Turner’s Kili). Steven Fry also turns up as the slimy, conniving Master of Laketown, and Luke Evans provides the necessary grim theatrics for the character of Bard.
Jackson’s directorial flair is as evident as ever, particularly his trademark vertigo inducing shots. In fact, every other scene seems to take place next to a huge chasm of one kind or another. Said chasms are the superlative work of Jackson’s army of production designers and visual effects staff. There are some particularly inspired sets; including Beorn’s house (where old fashioned creative use of scale is used), the Elven halls, Laketown and most memorably Smaug’s treasure laden lair. Howard Shore’s music mingles some fine new themes with the old, and the New Zealand locations look as spectacular as ever. Like all Middle Earth films this demands to be seen at the cinema.
Even if Tolkien would have disapproved of some of the liberties taken here, he certainly would have approved of the way the moral integrity of the story is maintained. Themes of misuse of power, greed and how evil spreads when the good do nothing are if anything even more explicit here than they are in the book. I could pick the odd nit (such as an unnecessary innuendo laden exchange between Kili and Tauriel that will mercifully go over the heads of the children) but in the end The Desolation of Smaug is much like the book on which it is based: fast, exciting and great fun.