Part 2 of Peter Jackson’s behemoth franchise, The Hobbit, opens with a flashback to one of The Lord of the Rings iconic sets, The Prancing Pony inn in Bree, immediately inviting cinema goers and critics alike to unfairly compare The Desolation of Smaug to the critically acclaimed trilogy of the early 2000’s. The Hobbit is incomparable to the Lord of the Rings, in that the novel it is based upon is a children’s book, very different to the sinister undertones of Tolkien’s sequels. The Hobbit trilogy should, as a result, be looked at upon its own terms, and not as the subject of the press’ bleatings about an age gone by, where a trip to the cinema meant an emotional journey shared with a loved set of characters, and not a CGI induced coma where the biggest question the protagonist has to face is which block of flats to blow up first or how long it’ll take Arnold Schwarzenegger to turn up, say something stupid then scratch his arse periodically for the next hour and a half. And whilst these sentiments may be worth something, leave Tollywood out of it.
Desolation starts somewhat slowly, as Jackson takes some time to reacquaint his audience with the rag tag band of dwarves, hobbits and wizards from An Unexpected Journey. The flashback (featuring Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield discussing the proposed journey to the Lonely Mountain) is followed by an hour of various encounters with different strange but wonderful creatures such as the skin-changer Beorn, and sometimes disgustingly dangerous monsters such as the spiders of Mirkwood (any arachnophobes might want to give this one a miss, at least in 3D or you might not sleep for a few weeks). The film really gets going with the reintroduction of the elven princeling, Legolas, who strangely manages to look older than in LOTR despite his character being sixty years younger, and someone’s done something weird with his eyes too. Legolas’ inclusion in The Hobbit sets a precedent for this movie which is Jackson’s biggest departure from Tolkien’s writings to date but Legolas himself is justified simply with the most exhilarating action scene of any of the films so far, a gripping, brutal battle scene cascading down a river with bouncing barrels, flying arrows and more decapitated orcs than you can shake a stick at. Not to be missed.
Continuing the theme of departure from the book, the elvish, vixen Tauriel, a brand new character of Jackson’s own creation, serves as one of the brightest additions to the story. Less ethereal, and far more dangerous than her LOTR counterpart Arwen, Tauriel helps to add a much needed dose of sass to the dialogue, helping to keep the plot grounded from floating off into the realms of disbelief, even if the love triangle between herself, Legolas and dwarf Kili is more than a little contrived.
The returning actors perform admirably and Martin Freeman shines as the bumbling Bilbo, depicting wonderfully his internal struggle with the evil ring as its sinister effect begins to be felt. Richard Armitage’s portrayal of the grouchy, cantankerous Thorin Oakenshield is also interesting as it highlights the growing focus of the series towards Bilbo and Thorin’s relationship and their obvious differences in goal and views. Ian McKellen displays Gandalf’s grandeur wonderfully as ever, and Sylvester McCoy’s whimsical portrayal of wizard Radagast the Brown more than makes up for Stephen Fry’s awfully out of place cameo as the Master of Laketown. Not to mention Peter Jackson’s continued obliviousness to James Nesbitt’s terrible turn as dwarf Bofur.
The real peak of the film, however, comes with the emergence of the magnificent Smaug, quite possibly the greatest dragon in film history, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s brilliantly malevolent depiction of him. Huge in scale, it took a whole week just to render one scale of Smaug’s body, and, in a midnight screening of the movie in Sao Paulo, one of the cinema’s speakers broke after the first roar.
Perhaps the greatest fault of this film, and also its predecessor, is the obvious overkill in the special effects arena. The Hobbit trilogy has for the first time used motion capture elements for the orcs faces, especially their gruesome leader Azog, and this, rather than make the character look more real, does the opposite. In comparison with Lurtz, the Uruk-Hai general from The Two Towers, who was filmed completely without CGI, the orcs of the next decade just aren’t as believable, even if they are doubly fearsome.
Nonetheless, this is a small detraction from an otherwise breathtaking motion picture roller-coaster. With action- scenes galore to keep the adrenaline junkie stuck in their seat and enough emotional character development to keep the critic content, The Desolation of Smaug is a triumphant success and keeps the Jackson juggernaut rolling on to the final instalment, There and Back Again, out next Christmas (not fall, we’re British).