Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Richard Armitage, Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Ken Stott
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“I found something in those caves…” stammers Bilbo halfway through The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. He fumbles awkwardly at The Ring in his pocket, then makes a decision. “My courage.”
By this point, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking there’s no one around to see their conversation; after An Unexpected Journey’s ungainly attempt to balance the small tale of The Hobbit with the large scale of The Lord of the Rings, the prospect of director Peter Jackson fumbling with The One Ring for another three hours, not knowing when to get it out, wasn’t hugely thrilling. Fortunately, that’s exactly what The Desolation of Smaug is: thrilling. It barrels along like Bombur on a river with an elf on his tail – and that’s very, very fast.
It starts, as all good films do, in the pub, where some ominous exposition between dwarf king Thorin (Armitage) and Gandalf (McKellen) makes it clear that the pale orc, Azog, from the first film (but not the book) is still at large, and that Thorin is still very much his target.
In An Unexpected Journey, Azog’s introduction was a jarring contrast to the more family-friendly fare taken from The Hobbit’s slim pages. Here, the emphasis on Thorin’s journey from descendant to rightful king under the Lonely Mountain – combined with Richard Armitage’s commanding presence – makes that additional material feel far more integrated.
It helps, too, that the scale is much wider. Peter Jackson’s confidence in his vision to expand The Hobbit into three films pays off, making the screen seem wide enough for the wayward storytelling. But he’s also more economical, thanks to a less bloated script; if the last outing was a sprawling attempt to build a disjointed world, this is almost a standalone heist set within that universe. A heist movie involving a dragon.
That structure and clear sense of climax keeps everything else in line. The introduction of Laketown doesn’t halt momentum, quickly painting the tiny metropolis with a large political backdrop (ruled over by a surprisingly understated Stephen Fry). Luke Evans gives good grit as man-of-the-people Bard too, building a base from which to fire Chekhov’s arrow. On the other side of Middle-earth, Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast returns to help Gandalf investigate the shadowy rise of The Necromancer (Cumberbatch), but Jackson resists the urge to add unnecessary rabbit chases. Instead, he trusts our attention span to follow the alternating storylines.
If that suggests The Desolation of Smaug is aimed more at adults, it’s not far off. The Hobbit: Part 2 is bigger, but it’s also a lot darker – there’s no singing here. Visions of Sauron, eyes, and decapitated monsters are seriously unsettling, and that’s before you get to the creepy CGI spiders. Jackson throws in handheld shots too, which give the bursts of fantasy horror the breakneck energy of his early movies. That consistently grim tone isn’t very suitable for younger audiences, but it’s more satisfying to watch.
The Hobbit hasn’t lost its sense of fun, though. Jokes are sporadic, but you’ll be grinning all the same. Set pieces erupt with an almost tangible glee, as Orlando Bloom returns with an ever-flexible bow-arm. But Legolas is outshone by newly-invented Tauriel. Evangeline’s Lilly she-elf could have been a mere love interest, but her independent streak makes her much more. Fighting, stabbing and shooting her way through orcs, she chooses when to stand back from the fray. And when she does step into it, it’s not a big deal: she kicks ass like it ain’t no thing. Legolas, it is safe to say, is no longer the prettiest elf in the woods.
Combined with Lilly’s rebellious charm, Tauriel is actually the best character in the film. Well, she would be, if it weren’t for one other new cast member: Benedict Cumberbatch. Playing both The Necromancer and Smaug the dragon, Cumberbatch’s growling, whispering vocals tower over everything else. Aided by some stunning visual effects, Smaug slithers and snarls like you’re in the room with him. His psychopath is the perfect contrast to Martin Freeman, who is so comfortably settled into the role of Bilbo that you almost don’t notice his tiny frame holding the movie together. Essentially standing in an empty room by himself for 45 minutes, the increasingly bold halfling cowers and outwits the vast beast in the mountain with a nail-biting ingenuity.
There are some problems still. While the orcs now feel central to the plot, Jackson’s use of CGI leaves the villains looking bland compared to his titular antagonist. Others, though, stem from the book rather than the director’s eager expansions: Tauriel’s addition actually gives the woodland elves a depth to match their beautiful sets and the company of dwarves remains too huge and male to know properly. But a romantic subplot subtly develops Aidan Turner’s Kili, while several are nimbly edited out of the third act to keep things streamlined. That decision separates The Desolation of Smaug from An Unexpected Journey: Jackson is willing to remove things as well as insert them. As The Hobbit grows in size, it becomes less of Tolkein’s text and more of Jackson’s interpretation. A barrel sequence early on showcases why that can be a good thing; Middle-earth hasn’t felt this exciting since The Fellowship of the Ring.
It’s taken Jackson almost six hours, but that courage of his? It’s finally paid off.