The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is larger, grander and more decorated than its predecessor. It takes us to places in Middle-Earth we’ve only ever heard of in passing, or read about in the novels. There’re the ruins of Dale, the once great city of Men that lay near the foot of the Lonely Mountain. There’s the Elven kingdom of Mirkwood, gloomy yet majestic among the tall trees. There’s the house of Beorn the skinchanger, filled with bees the size of apples. There’s Laketown, which looks like something evolved from a Pirates Of The Caribbean movie but populated by ancient Mongols. And of course there’s the halls of Erebor, the great Dwarf kingdom, once overflowing with life and laughter, now a mausoleum inhabited only by Smaug the dragon and a billion tonnes worth of gold.
The most successful thing about all these locations is how real Peter Jackson and his WETA teams make them. They are fully functional, fully captivating places, designed with an incredible amount of detail, down to the very nails that hold the houses together. I can imagine stepping into Erebor and at once being overpowered by the sheer depth and volume of the space, long before my eyes have even noticed the glimmering sparkles of the gold beneath my feet. I can also imagine how life in Laketown would be; it wouldn’t be pleasant. But if a fantasy location can make me fantasise about living in it, it’s done its job and done it well.
And then there’s the dragon. Smaug the tyrannical. What a creature this is. I have not seen a dragon quite like him. Not in Dragonheart, and certainly not in any of the Harry Potter pictures. Smaug, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch — who always manages to inject his deep voice with a powerful dose of malice — is terrifying, glorious, and beautiful. All at the same time. Observe the way he slithers about his chamber, how his mouth curls like a human’s, how his eyes are always watching. There is intelligence in that large head and more than just fire churning within that body.
He, of course, is guarding his loot, stolen forcefully from the Dwarves many years before (how he has survived all this time with no food is something the script — and Tolkien’s novel by extension — never addresses). We know the story. Thorin (Richard Armitage), the rightful heir to the throne, wants to reclaim Erebor for himself and his people. He and his kin, and Bilbo the Hobbit (Martin Freeman), are on a quest to do so. This movie sees them wander through very perilous obstacles, most of which require orcs to be decapitated and/or shot through their heads by Elven arrows, supplied — most of the time — by Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom). There is a sequence that involves a rushing river, a bunch of Dwarf-filled barrels, a hoard of charging orcs, and a pursuing Elven duo that stands as a wonderful set piece of outrageous and gratuitous action. The movie will not see the likes of it again.
It travels into dark territory. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has abandoned the Dwarf crew and has marched ahead on his own mission, involving Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) and the return of Sauron. This sets up ominous portents that will undoubtedly grow into the events leading up to Fellowship Of The Ring. None of this is mentioned in the novel. It’s been added by Jackson and his writing crew as a means to thicken the story. Yes, much has been said about his decision to spread a thin children’s book into three mega epics, but by tying in loose ends from the appendices he has created a narrative bridge between the events of this future trilogy and the one that has come before. The story being told here is still of one creation, of one goal.
The Desolation Of Smaug is a fantastic movie. It comes hard and fast with the action when it needs to, and then it slows down to allow some of its characters to breathe. The young handsome Dwarf, Kili (Aidan Turner), finds an unexpected love affair. And the Master of Laketown, played almost to a Shakespearean precision by Stephen Fry, shows up briefly but exposes his weaknesses as a leader in scenes of clever misdirection. The characters gel, in one way or another, and despite the clinging and clanging of swords and axes, the humans remain the core of this series.
Having said all this, The Desolation Of Smaug is half an hour too long. Or at least it feels half an hour too long. The last third is simply a three-way cross-cut of three separate stories, linked only by character. Why not cut down some of the transitions and tighten the climax? When moments of silence came, I could hear viewers in the cinema fiddling with their watches, shifting in their seats and taking deep breaths. I’m usually not fussy about duration, but when watches need to be glanced at, something isn’t right.
Best Moment | The river sequence. Also, despite losing his slick ferocity from the Lord Of The Rings movies, Legolas still manages to wow with some spectacular agile moves and leaps.
Worst Moment | The spiders in Mirkwood talking. Unlike the trolls in the first movie who had to talk, the spiders here would’ve been better off had they shrieked and wailed instead of hissing lines like “Their hide is thick but their flesh is juicy!”.