The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review
Author David Mitchell once charitably said of the film adaptation of his novel Cloud Atlas, “any adaptation is a translation … and I believe a degree of reinterpretation for the new language may be not only inevitable but desirable…”. So indeed were my sentiments about Peter Jackson’s stripping back of (and in many places adding to) The Lord of the Rings books to create his masterful trilogy concluded some eleven years back. The abandonment of plot-irrelevant or dramatically redundant scenes (novel fans will understand this to mean most notably Tom Bombadil or the Scouring of the Shire) and the embellishment of the novel’s only lightly-treated romantic plotlines served to create a film that was tauter and more emotionally engaging.
Suffice it to say, I believe straying from the source material isn’t always heretical butchery; often its just good, audience-minded discretion.
I say all this because any Tolkien fan sitting down to review The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug will need to make a choice between Tolkien loyalism and an objective critiquing of the film per se. I lean towards the latter camp, but with a proviso: if you're going to do a number on the source material, you better have good reasons for it.
Aside from the ostensible main storyline, which follows the dwarves’ continued journey to claim their erstwhile mountain home, the latest installment develops plot lines scoured from passing references in the book, from appendices of the broader Tolkien canon and in some instances they are entirely invented. These additions have their place and many of them work, particularly the film’s inter-species love triangle subplot, which serves to raise the emotional stakes for the inevitable final showdown in the third film.
Where this film runs into trouble is using the new content to achieve connectedness to the earlier, but plot-wise chronologically later, Rings franchise. In particular, the revelation of the Necromancer as Sauron (which dare I say only the most obtuse viewer would have failed to identify during An Unexpected Journey), would have been better placed at the closure of the final film, as a chilling tie-in to the story we know will follow. ‘Imply’ rather than ‘tell’ would have been a more suitable mantra for an audience already educated in the overall story arc, off the back of the three earlier films.
These departures distract screen time that could have been more wisely applied. Most obviously lacking is an investment in character development. Thirteen dwarves? After the second installment, had I not been an avid re-reader of the book, I’d have struggled to name more than three. Thirteen might sound like a lot to get through, but ask yourself: after watching the first 25 minutes of Ocean’s Eleven, would you have had any trouble recounting the personalities in play? The point is, after two films and 330 minutes, it could have and should have been achieved.
It might sound like we’re off to a bad start here, but actually, Desolation is a superior film to its predecessor. There is a genuine sense of peril and consequence in the action scenes that was somewhat lacking in the more cartoonish action of the first film. Also, more as a symptom of its being a middle-chapter installment, there is less of the narrative-style exposition that some viewers found dragging in An Unexpected Journey.
Like all films in Jackson’s Tolkien franchise, the sense of place is the most enveloping feature of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. With some superbly realised new sets, including the elf king’s woodland realm and the shanty-town-on-stilts Laketown, fans will find new and wonderful places to explore in their beloved Middle Earth with a satisfying level of detail, even if it doesn't quite achieve the majestic world scope of the Rings films.
Despite the realness of the physical surrounds, unfortunately the CGI baddies don't deliver the required physical menace. They are a little weightless and insubstantial, compared to the brutal physicality of the orcs in the Lord of the Rings films; which serves as a timely reminder that when it comes to computer imaging technology, just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
The film makes up for it however in the final confrontation with Smaug the fire-breathing dragon, long term resident of the mountain the dwarves are trying to reclaim. How it is possible to render a mythical creature – without any real-life example to follow – so convincingly and terrifyingly, well … animal, is beyond me. It's like the CGI team working on this film all got together and said “don’t mind the measly orcs, lets make this guy the true embodiment of terror”. And how.
Performances by Richard Armitage (as dwarf-in-chief Thorin), Martin Freeman (as hobbit Bilbo) and Ian McKellen are as fine as ever. Benedict Cumberbatch, Freeman’s co-star from the BBC’s Sherlock series, features as an effective but unrecognizable voice of Smaug. A slightly more chiseled, less elfin Orlando Bloom is a welcome return to the franchise as elf prince Legolas.
Despite the plot misadventures, overall, the artful high-gloss production style of Peter Jackson fuses enjoyably with J R R Tolkien masterful story-telling in another enjoyable installment in the Hobbit tale. What’s more, compared to An Unexpected Journey, I left this film with far more heightened expectations for what is to come.