Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
Directed by Peter Jackson; Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

Rating: 4/5

There was a time, during the early years of the twenty first century, when each December would herald a new Lord of the Rings (alongside a new Harry Potter film and maybe a Star Wars, if we were lucky). The height of this lasted only as long as the three years over which Peter Jackson’s original trilogy were released, but was already becoming something of a tradition.

With ITV serialising Harry Potter over the Christmas period, and a brand new epic trilogy in the Hunger Games series coinciding with the release of The Hobbit, it really does feel like it did all those years ago. Certainly, Peter Jackson wants to do it all over again, and why not? It’s a treat to indulge in almost three hours of fantasy on the big screen, and there can be no denying that The Hobbit is indulgent.

Much has been made of the seemingly unnecessary decision to stretch a meagre prequel out to the length of the epic three-book Lord of the Rings trilogy. Strictly speaking, this series rounds out Peter Jackson’s version of Middle Earth as both an adaptation of The Hobbit and the numerous appendices and preambles that were cut from The Lord of the Rings.

It’s been a long time since I read The Hobbit – so long, in fact, that it may have been read to me by my parents. I can’t quite remember what‘s original, and what’s just filler, but these films are ticking all the boxes for me. Last year had the encounter with trolls and Bilbo’s riddles with Gollum, and this time around we visit the foreboding gloom of Mirkwood, the distant settlement of Laketown (where Stephen Fry appears as the greedy master) and the lair of the dragon Smaug.

The star of these films as always been the visual effects and epic scope, and this instalment is no exception. CGI spectacle integrates seamlessly into the breathtaking New Zealand landscape. While largely flawless, some of the green screen shots are regrettably obvious, and the final sequence, involving much molten gold, is decidedly lacklustre.

Martin Freeman shines as the unassuming Bilbo Baggins, who has much greater confidence, a result of both his experiences in the first film and the slow but steady corruption of the ring. Similarly, the deposed king Thorin (Richard Armitage) appears to come under the influence of his lost wealth as the party nears the ocean of gold below the mountain.

New material includes the presence of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Jackson’s original character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, providing the film’s only female lead) who flesh out the scenes in the Elven kingdom and provide some intrigue into the relationships between Elves and Dwarves. They also help drive the film’s most high paced action sequence, the famous barrel escape.

With a hindsight that Tolkien himself was not afforded, the film is tied neatly to Lord of the Rings continuity by Legolas, along with references to his future companion Gimli and the Eye of Sauron. The latter is the focus of an expanded sequence with Gandalf (Ian McKellen, delivering a typically winning performance) in the spooky ruins of the fortress which casts a pall over the surrounding region. The final sequence, a battle with Smaug through ruins of mighty Dwarven industry, provides another thrill ride, and prevents the film from ending with an otherwise unsatisfying cliff hanger.

Inevitably, with thirteen dwarves and one hobbit in the main party (and countless other wizards, elves and humans filling up the story) the cast is too large, and many of the characters slip into the background. Thankfully, Bilbo receives a lengthy scene one-on-one with the film’s most stunning special effect, the dragon Smaug, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. The performance drips with ham and cheese and the beast occupies every inch of the cinema screen.

So while this film strays occasionally into overblown fantasy dialogue, and it can be a challenge to keep up with all the characters and everything that’s going on, this is an enjoyable, if lengthy movie, at least the equal of its predecessor.

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