By Cleaver Patterson.
A book like J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was always going to be too big in size and scope to be contained, should it ever be made, by just one film. Whether this justifies stretching it over three, as New Zealand director Peter Jackson has done, remains to be seen. The second installment of his intended trilogy has now been released in the form of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, with the concluding part to hit cinemas this time next year. However, once all the debris of the Orc and Elfin battles settles and the dragon’s smoke dissipates with the Middle Earth sunset, what are we left with—more of what’s gone before (just bigger, louder and longer) or a fresh development of the story, which digs deeper into the lore of Tolkien’s mythical land?
In Desolation, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) continue their quest to help the dwarfs of Erebor in their attempt to reclaim their kingdom and treasure from the fearful dragon Smaug. Despite overcoming a host of obstacles along the way, nothing prepares them for their final confrontation with the fire breathing behemoth.
However, there is a problem with Jackson’s Tolkien inspired fantasies similar to that which plagues many modern blockbusters based on magic, monsters and superheroes in various forms. Namely, if you’re not a die-hard fan of this type of film, though they’re fun and diverting in and of themselves, within the series as a whole they begin to blend into one another. This is clear with the latest chapter of Hobbit history which by the end, though engrossing, seems like one large set-piece connected by scene establishing dialogue, moody glances and dire warnings of the forthcoming doom from the gloomy Gandalf. Like Tolkien’s books these films are full of impressive sequences on a grand scale, interspersed with interminable and frequently unnecessarily drawn out (hundred page long) descriptions of journeys or battles. As a result, the hour and a half between the first fifteen minutes and the last three quarters of an hour of this installment doesn’t really say anything that it couldn’t in half the time.
The interpretation of Tolkien’s classic for the big screen—by Jackson, his wife Fran Walsh, and co-writers Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro—is also brought down by being a little too clever for its own good. Their approach makes it confusing at first as to where The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug fits in, going back as it does to events which take place after the initial introductions yet before the climax of the first installment. Though this makes perfect sense by the end, it does take some time for the viewer to mentally place the events of this film within the time frame of the overall story.
On a more positive note, the film is a stunning example of the craftsmanship of Jackson. Like the English artist Alan Lee—whose paintings (up until Jackson’s original The Lord of the Rings trilogy, on which Lee worked as a set decorator) were probably the most well known visualisation of Tolkien’s fantasy realms—Jackson has created a world so tangible that the viewer becomes completely immersed in the proceedings unfolding before their eyes. Though, by the nature and subject matter of the film three quarters of it must be CGI based, you’re never conscious of this aspect. The imaginary elements of the land and its people are as real and believable as any of those that are outwardly normal by human standards, and the lines between the man-made environments and real locations of New Zealand (which are awe inspiring in their majesty) are so seamlessly blended that it is virtually impossible to tell where the real stops and surreal starts. Also refreshing for a modern film shot in 3D, this production process actually works for once. Unlike many films which use the format simply as a gimmick, here it adds depth to the environment as opposed to simply shocking the viewer by throwing things from the screen at them (though this happens as well).
Of the characters, it’s perhaps surprising that Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is one of the least memorable. It goes without saying that Ian McKellen’s interpretation of the sage-like Gandalf—a character with which he is now inextricably linked—stands foremost in the mind. However, the unexpected appearance of Stephen Fry (suitably bombastic as the Master of Laketown—the settlement outside of which the film’s climatic scenes take place) reveals how talented and versatile a performer this English stalwart is, whilst the elves (especially Orlando Bloom), though not particularly likeable, do look way better than should be legally allowed. However, it is two of the more fantastical creations which take precedence in the ranks of the film’s most disturbing characters. A colony of giant spiders which attack Bilbo and his companions when they least expect it are bad enough, but it’s Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is fast becoming a ubiquitous presence in the world of film and television) who is truly breathtaking. The climatic sparring between Cumberbatch (albeit in voice only) and Freeman as Bilbo (reminiscent of the duo’s pairing in television’s smash hit series Sherlock) is a joy to watch.
What will happen now that the The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies are all but finished? Well, considering that Tolkien, and his son Christopher, wrote numerous other volumes concerning the history and events of Middle Earth, there’s more than enough material for the foreseeable future should Jackson and Warner Brothers want to continue with the franchise.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opened in the UK and America on December 13th, 2013.