Dec 182013

When someone steals your home, your lands and all that you hold dear, how far will you go to reclaim it? And if doing so involves putting innocents in the line of fire and wreaking untold destruction on those who look to you for guidance, is it really worth going after in the first place? My review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug after the jump.

After already having braved numerous perils in the wilds of Middle-Earth, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and the company of 13 dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) continue on their quest for the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the wealth of the dwarf-kingdom of Erebor. But first, they must brave the vast, inhospitable confines of the forest of Mirkwood, all the while being hunted by the relentless pale-orc Azog (Manu Bennett). Even if they make it to the end, there is still the small matter of a certain dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) to contend with. And he will not give up his ill-gotten gains willingly…

I wrote in my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire about how difficult it is to follow-up a successful first instalment of a series. But what about following up a first instalment seen by many as a disappointment? And what happens when the end result will inevitably be compared to the towering achievement that was the Lord of the Rings trilogy? It’s not that An Unexpected Journey was a bad film; it got by on some charming performances, stand-out sequences and most important of all: genuine heart. But this was undermined by a sense that there was too much unnecessary padding designed to artificially extend the series so that Peter Jackson could afford a Smaug-sized swimming pool. I’m happy to say that The Desolation of Smaug improves on its prequel in almost every way. Peter, I’m sorry I doubted you and made that crack about your swimming pool.

Interestingly, the new material that wasn’t present in the book is actually one of the chief assets this time around. Gandalf’s mysterious disappearance in the novel is fully expanded here and his skirmish in the haunted ruins of Dol Guldur sheds more light on the true evil that will come to haunt them all in Rings. We haven’t seen Gandalf this badass since he told that Balrog to back the hell off in The Fellowship of the Ring. Plus, the money shot in this sequence is sinisterly satisfying.

Also of note is the much-anticipated return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the addition of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) in the Mirkwood segment. Legolas’ presence makes narrative sense as he is a prince of the Elvish woodland realm and a slight dig that foreshadows his friendship with Gimli the dwarf in Rings produced the biggest laugh of the film. Tauriel was a contentious issue considering she was created specifically for the movie but Lilly is such a luminous presence in this film that I was more than willing to accept her, and although Legolas is a little too serious here, watching him and Tauriel repeatedly carve up orcs like Christmas turkeys is one of the chief joys of Desolation, particularly during the dwarves’ famous escape from the dungeons of Mirkwood in wine barrels.

Exciting is a word that applies rather well to Desolation. The film moves along with a riveting sense of purpose and urgency that was entirely missing from An Unexpected Journey, shifting from one amazing spectacle to another without sacrificing the smaller beats necessary for making us believe in this fantastic word and the characters that inhabit it. Thorin’s increasing ambition and haughtiness become more and more apparent as he draws closer to his ruined kingdom. As he becomes more enamoured of his end goal, he slowly starts to drift from being the Aragorn of The Hobbit to becoming the Boromir of the piece, a brave, noble warrior whose unwavering sense of entitlement threatens to overwhelm his better nature. This contrasts well with new character Bard (Luke Evans), a man of Esgaroth who aids Thorin and company. Both he and Thorin struggle with their ancestors’ failure to protect their respective people from Smaug though where Thorin only has eyes for his prize, Bard takes a more pragmatic approach, urging caution where Thorin does not. Which brings us to the eponymous character. Smaug is yet another miracle of CGI, a triumph of serpentine might and a true adversary for our heroes.

The Desolation of Smaug manages the impossible: it improves drastically from its predecessor and impresses with its action-filled sequences. It isn’t afraid to expand its canvas, often to breathtaking effect. Though it suffers from a lack of a real conclusion, for the first time I actually have hope that the next Hobbit movie can aspire to match the grandeur that was The Lord of the Rings trilogy.


By Johnson Hii

The Facts

Director: Peter Jackson
Writer(s): Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro (screenplay), J R.R. Tolken (novel)
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage
Runtime: 161 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: December 26 2013; New Zealand: December 12 2013; USA: December 13 2013