The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Review Sherlockabilia Shop Now Open

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Review * 14 December 2013

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A year ago, we sat in stunned silence in a dark IMAX cinema as a gigantic reptilian eye snapped open from beneath a shifting pile of gold, staring back out to fill us with a mixture of anticipation and... dread? A year later, the owner of that huge eyeball stands revealed in astounding fashion, along with another ending that leaves us in identical suspense.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is markedly different from its predecessor. It quite literally hits the ground running and never lets up, though often to the detriment of some of its characters this time around. Whereas before Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Thorin (Richard Armitage) had quite definitive arcs to play, here they're reduced to specific scenes that highlight the growing stakes they are placed under.

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Martin Freeman remains the complete embodiment of Bilbo Baggins. It's impossible to imagine anyone else playing this younger incarnation now, and his incredibly naturalistic performance continues to lend the character a huge degree of investment. That's not to say new wrinkles aren't introduced, with a stand out moment of Bilbo alone in the depths of Mirkwood making it clear that The One Ring is already exerting a hold over him. In that instant, this isn't the same character that spared the life of Gollum (Andy Serkis) in the previous film, but someone who is suddenly ferocious and even malicious when the seemingly innocuous trinket is threatened. Seconds later, Bilbo's horror at what he has done is palpable and thunderous. An incredible moment to watch.  

Richard Armitage has a far more difficult role to play this time around, compared to the regal gruffness the last time. Here Thorin begins to become far more ambiguous, his intent on reaching The Lonely Mountain by any means driving him to make bargains that will ultimately cause those facilitating them an extremely high price - hazy here, but something that will become all too clear come the final instalment. His lust to reclaim Erebor and the MacGuffin-like Arkenstone begin to overwhelm his judgement, not least in a brief confrontation with Bilbo within the mountain that hints at far darker places for him to go in the film ahead.

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This time around Ian McKellen is slightly relegated to the sidelines, but that is to be expected as Gandalf's path diverges from that of the Dwarves at this point in the story. To keep him around however, the film mines further material from the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings to provide him with a dramatic plotline as he begins a deeper investigation into the nature of the mysterious Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch, performing entirely in rasping Black Speech) lurking within the ruins of an abandoned fortress. It's in this thread that we can return to the idea of these films enhancing The Lord of the Rings trilogy in subtle ways that are not immediately apparent. Gandalf is here a man of action, striding into Dol Goldur with the full knowledge of the danger that lurks within. In The Fellowship of the Ring, he is incredibly reluctant to descend into the depths of Moria, fully aware of the terrifying creature that lurks in the shadows of that place. It's thus easy to see how his encounter with The Necromancer in The Desolation of Smaug can feed into his palpable fear in Fellowship - he confronts a being that is his better and comes off worse. Anyone would be fearful of being placed in that situation again.   

The supporting ensemble is once again huge and varied, and there is probably not enough space to give all who deserve it suitable coverage. Within the narrative of The Desolation of Smaug we once again encounter the Elves, but here it is the woodland race that reside within Mirkwood. Since Tolkien stipulated that Legolas was the son of Thranduil (Lee Pace), king of this clan, it's logical to see Orlando Bloom return here in his star making role from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. This Legolas is colder and more efficient than the one we are used to though, someone who has not travelled far enough in Middle Earth to understand the concerns of other races. There's that sense of evolution again towards to the previous trilogy, the events we'll see in these films will dovetail him to the warmer character we are familiar with - at present, it's impossible to reconcile him with the Elf that will happily die alongside a Dwarf who he has come to consider a friend in The Return of the King. More forthcoming though is new character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a soul who yearns to see more of the world outside the borders of Mirkwood, and her unexpected encounter with Kili (Aidan Turner) gives her motivation to do that. Tolkien's books are of course light on female characters, so the invention of Tauriel is a welcome addition to the cast, a strong willed and capable character who never feels trite or shoehorned in. Also joining the cast are Luke Evans as the conflicted yet heroic Bard - another significantly expanded presence from the original story - and Stephen Fry in a brief, repellent turn as the Master of Laketown.  

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There is though, of course, one rather large character we haven't mentioned yet.  The encounter between Bilbo and the titular dragon Smaug is one of those scenes in fantasy literature that is complicated not only by the wild differences in scale between the pair but also because Smaug is arguably THE modern fantasy dragon, a creature that has to look and behave in a manner that embraces all that have followed him in many media, while also setting himself apart in an attempt to acknowledge the definitive place the character holds in the genre. And that is definitely the most critical word to consider when you see The Dragon for the first time. Smaug is not a creature, but most certainly a character. Providing both his voice, facial performance and a degree of movement, Benedict Cumberbatch inhabits the role perfectly, his voice - and unless we're mistaken, a few visual cues to his own face - recognisable completely amongst the design elements that place Smaug somewhere between a cobra and a bat, with heavy influences from Western and Chinese mythology in the mix as well. A skillfully revealed presence, the interplay between Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in the film is a stupendous experience to watch, Bilbo's calm desperation and quick thinking in direct counterpoint to the preening, egotistic qualities The Dragon displays.

How Smaug is handled is just one facet in the direction of Peter Jackson here, mixing palpable tension with grand spectacle. While the first film in the trilogy was recognisably his work, it didn't kick into high gear until the sequences in Goblin Town. From the off this time, Jackson frankly lets rip, giving the entire film a far greater scale than the opener. Many sequences are theme parks rides waiting to happen. Rightly called out as the standout action scene of the entire film, the Dwarves' escape from the Mirkwood Elves by way of Barrels down a river brings all elements of Jackson's skillset together - including gifting the still mute Bombur (Stephen Hunter) perhaps one of the most thrilling shots in the director's catalogue of endlessly swooping camera work. There's also a great growth in the production design, taking us to places in Middle Earth we've never been - the frozen ramshackle sight of Laketown evokes Venice on ice, the cavernous depths of Erebor the Mines of Moria on acid. And Howard Shore's score, which last time was so dependent on existing themes from the previous trilogy, here cuts loose with heaps of new material, not least the full version of the theme that represents The Dragon himself, all eastern instrumentation and still, quiet malevolence that explodes to hulking life.  

But as we said, you'll likely sit in stunned silence come the close, not least at the seeming temerity of Jackson to end this film on a blatant cliffhanger of an ending. While it will doubtless give us an extraordinary opening action sequence (and yes, it's quite nice to keep The Dragon alive a little longer) there's no avoiding the frustration of having to wait a year. However, patience is a virtue, and the chance to see how Jackson brings his two trilogies together is something we cannot wait to see after this thrilling second film in The Hobbit Trilogy.  

This review is very much a follow up to our previous review for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

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