Middle-earth motion pictures are quickly becoming as synonymous with Christmas as mulled cider and bad cracker jokes, and last year was no different. Peter Jackson is back with the second instalment in his trilogy of films adapted from J.R.R Tolkien’s fantasy adventure novel. ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ picks up pretty much where Bilbo Baggin’s unexpected journey left off as he, along with Gandalf the Grey and a squad of merry dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield, continue their trek to The Lonely Mountain to find the Arkenstone gem and reclaim the Kingdom of Erebor. On their travels, they encounter giant man-eating spiders, the Elves of Mirkwood, a horde of vicious orcs and of course, Smaug, the dragon. But now that Bilbo is in possession of the One Ring, he is an ever-changing hobbit and his character is severely tested, adding an extra dimension compared to the first film which was mainly an introduction exercise for the host of new characters.
The first instalment of the trilogy came under critical fire for its pacing issues and the lengthy pit stops used halting the proceedings to pad out the typically long running time associated with Peter Jackson’s works. This time around, there is a much more action packed start after and during the big set pieces, the high 48fps frame rate is handled more assuredly but it still unfortunately feels below average in terms of the 3D usage. Considering filmmakers such as Ang Lee and Alfonso Cuaron have made technical leaps forward in this field, the 3D effects here are unremarkable and distracting, failing to add an awful lot to the film.
In saying that, the visuals are mostly spectacular, particularly in one busy sequence when the dwarves are sent hurtling downstream whilst packed in wooden wine barrels as they flee from the elves in a wonderfully entertaining escapade. Talking of elves, we see Jackson employing some creative license when it comes to the pointy-eared clan, bringing Lord of the Ring’s favourite Legolas into the story despite the fact he wasn’t featured in the original book. Though more controversially he also initiates the feisty Tauriel, who has been plucked straight from his own imagination, and wedges in a cross-species love triangle between Tauriel, Legolas and boisterous dwarf Kili, who is the only dwarf aside from the courageous Thorin to receive further character development in this edition. The others follow suit and make up the numbers though a small group are separated from the bunch near the end which may allow for something more interesting in the final piece. The romance aspect of the storytelling feels very unnecessary and forced, completely deflecting from the origins of Tolkien’s beloved tale and serving merely as filler.
The performances are strong across the board, lifting the entertainment value somewhat, and Martin Freeman excels in developing Bilbo’s arc, becoming braver with a brooding darkness as the almighty affect of the ring takes control. He is sadly underused given that he is in the titular role but his two-hander scene with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug the Magnificent is magnificent and provides a memorable showdown, Cumberbatch achieving more than you can imagine in supplying a vocal performance as the deadly antagonist. This follows on from the two-hander in ‘An Unexpected Journey’ with Gollum which was the best scene of that film as well, but with less humour and more sense of threat. Ian McKellen is suitably solid as usual, having had plenty of practice in engulfing himself in the role of Gandalf, but is also used sparingly as he meets with the Necromancer in a subplot which acts as an exciting tension builder for the third film in the series.
It is difficult to give honourable mentions to all faces of this chapter as there are so many but Bard the Bowman and the Master of Lake-town are most notably impressive additions as the plot develops, the former giving the human element that Aragorn supplied in the Lord of the Rings franchise, and I am thoroughly enjoying the way that Thorin, played brilliantly by Richard Armitage, is utilised. He is proving himself as a worthy leader of the hearty dwarves. In being the middle film of a colossal trilogy, ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ manages to find its own identity, shrugging off the issues from the opener and assuming the vital function in bridging it with the anticipated finale which will be with us this Christmas. By then, Peter Jackson’s beard may be as grey as Gandalf’s which would be apt in delivering the last in his marathon collection.