In what was the middle part of The Lord of the Rings cinematic trilogy – The Two Towers (2002) – our grand story suffers from very mild symptoms of middle film syndrome. As the go between to The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and Return of the King (2003), the story slightly sags in pace. As the Hobbit trilogy comes to its sandwich part with The Desolation of Smaug, no such pacing symptoms can be found in what is a rip-roaring roller coaster ride of fantasy escapism.
Although full of joy and adventure, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) suffered from the unfortunate chance of being based on one third of a book that is exactly the same in structure to the The Fellowship of the Ring. One could be describing both The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when they say the adventure starts in the lavish green of Shire, moves to the lush Elven respite of Rivendell, descends into the Orc occupied depths of the mountains and then formulates in a forest battle between our heroes and their hunters. Now the sequel has arrived, familiarity and similarity is desolated as soon as the adventure re-begins; venturing further east, we fray into fresh territories visually unexplored. The hallucinogenic Mirkwood forest makes Fangorn look like the local park, the Lonely Mountain is an awe inspiring back-drop for the finale and Gandalf descends into a much welcomed sub-plot deep in the architecturally troublesome ruin of Dol Goldur; where he must face evil, actually use magic and create connections to the events of The Lord of the Rings.
Director Peter Jackson now has more creative claim over Middle Earth as J.R.R Tolkien – the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Jackson evidently loves the world but that does not mean he is afraid to make changes, move things things around and turn 300 pages of children novel into nine hours of film. He also likes to pluck characters out of nowhere when we are introduced to she-elf Tauriel; an original character, played by Evangeline Lilly, who not only fits in seamlessly, but is actually one of the best things about the ride: her alluring beauty being matched only by an ass-kicking ability that will have Legolas looking on with envy. However, not everything Jackson and his writer Fran Walsh include is completely wise: a questionable inclusion of an un-Tolkien inter-species love triangle between the pretty boy Dwarf with stubble, the angelic Tauriel and a slightly chubbier, ten years older Legolas is worrisome in its echoes of Twilight (transformation scenes and Ed Sheeran credit songs seem like an attempt to attract the post-Twilight teenage audience), and a political sub-plot about Lake Town being run with an iron fist by a repulsive dictator played by Stephen Fry (who is essentially a human version of the Goblin King) seems completely superfluous.
The songs and legends be true! Smaug is, indeed, every bit as magnificent as they say. When the glorious dragon enters a frame he can barely fit in, the lacking motion-capture/CGI presence of Andy Serkis’ Gollum finds its worthy substitute. In what is a stupendous batch of epic cumber, Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a rasping, deep chorus of Tolkien dialogue as Smaug. This may just be the voice you imagined (and voiced yourself) when reading those beautiful chapters of the novel: “My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears!” Cumberbatch booms in the shimmering golden glow of Erebor. The interaction between Sherlock and Watson in the final third is a worthy wait for fans who have long yearned to see the meeting between Smaug and Bilbo on their screens. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is still the heart of the film; his subtle touches of humour, warmth and emotion (as well as the moments we see the One Ring starting to take hold) being a display of fabulous acting and source of great drama. Considering that the movie is called The Hobbit and Freeman is so likeable, we need to see more of him when the final chapter comes around.
Comparisons to Jackson’s first Middle Earth trilogy are inevitable and in this comparison of quality and aesthetic, you may not find The Hobbit’s glossier, computer rendered version of Middle Earth as rewarding, or tonally investing as that darker, epic trilogy. CGI Orcs are not as effective, admirable, or scary as physical people in prosthetic make-up. Post-King Kong (2005), Jackson seems adamant to up the ante of his extravagant action set pieces each time, even if they lose all sense of realism. Sequences such as the Barrel theme park ride are fabulous things in themselves, but the lacking humanity, and simple glory of a personal hand-to-hand sword fight, such as, say, the Aragon vs. The Ringwraith’s exchange at Weathertop, is difficult not to mourn over. Regrettably, these issues are beyond resolve as they are inherent decisions that the filmmakers decided to take. Something we have to accept, just like how we should accept that Bombur the chubby Dwarf will never get a line of dialogue. Ever.
The pace has quickened, the peril is greater and the result is a far superior experience to the first Hobbit film. Long the film is and bums may get numb, but when the film ends on a positive groan inducing note of “tune in next time”, the unresolved conflicts that have been brewing, the sticky character situations, the high stakes, and the moving forces of evil – all of which look set to explode in a ball of excitement for the concluding chapter – will make you really want to come back next year.