The Desolation of Smaug succeeds where its predecessor failed, but some issues remain.
I found myself smiling as I left the cinema last night. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug had, for me, succeeded where An Unexpected Journey had failed. It had transported me back to Middle-Earth.
Gone were the pacing issues of the first film, along with the ridiculously over-the-top Twilight wolves and the ability to jump from a dry grassland to a soaking woodland metropolis simply by climbing into a rock.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy excelled in making Middle-Earth a living, breathing world inhabited by real yet fantastical characters. It did so through taking the breathtaking scenery of New Zealand and seamlessly integrating CGI and fantastic prosthetics into magnificent sets and superb landscapes. Yet, in The Hobbit, Peter Jackson almost inexplicably choses to tinker with this finely honed balance and go more all-out with CGI.
Make no mistake, there is very little attempt made to step away from CGI usage. It’s used aplenty. Yet, whether it’s improvements in the quality of the CGI, or more attempt made to integrate the CGI into the actual purpose of the scene (rather than it becoming a flashy portfolio of special effects), it feels far less intrusive this time around.
The computer generated orcs – a major problem the last time around for my enjoyment of the film – are of far higher quality this time around, and almost look real. AUJ made Gollum look real, yet failed miserably with the likes of Azog. While Azog still isn’t perfect, he’s a lot better.
And again, it felt like effort was made to make the environments more believable. There was far less of the fantastical colours, the glowing-eyed wolves, the moonlit forest fire that looked completely cartoonish. Instead, Jackson and WETA appear to have opted for a more natural colour palette, particularly in Erebor, Mirkwood, the mountain tombs and Dol Guldur.
The result? I felt like I was in a real world again, like I had in The Lord of the Rings. And since I wasn’t constantly being pulled out of the world, I was able to enjoy the film.
Leaving the effects aside (and I admit, they might seem an odd place to start a review, but they had been so pivotal in my frustrations with the first film it seemed a natural place to begin) The Desolation of Smaug is a stronger film than the first. The pacing issues that riddled the first film are gone, and while it still a long film (I did hear other cinema goers moaning about the length as we left), I felt as if it flew past faster than An Unexpected Journey. The film gets down to business quickly with a meeting of the fantastic Richard Armitage’s character Thorin and Gandalf in Bree, and it never really slows after that. It moves quickly, moving at good pace between the multiple plot lines: Bilbo and the Dwarves, Gandalf’s investigation into Dol Guldur and Legolas’ life in Mirkwood. The new characters are well realised, particularly Bard in Laketown, and I particularly enjoyed the appearances of Beorn and Stephen Fry’s Master of Laketown. I actually felt the fun, this time around.
Much as the Riddles in the Dark sequence in AUJ stood out, there are several similarly exemplary scenes in TDOS. I loved the ominous scene with the Wizards at the tombs at the High Fells, Gandalf’s battle at Dol Guldur, as well as the sequence in Mirkwood with the spiders (which was a pretty terrifying action sequence). Finally, there was a great sense of geographical continuity that had been lacking completely in AUJ. Here, I felt we were back on track, travelling through a believable world, and I think the long-distance shots over Mirkwood played a huge part in grounding the viewer, showing them the path ahead – much as the ending shots in The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers did. I’d content they’re hugely underrated shots, and AUJ suffered without them. (I know they had the final shot of Erebor after the Eagles had rescued the Dwarves, but by that point I’d spent two hours and forty-five minutes wandering around a seemingly disconnected series of set pieces that changed faster than you could say “Fly, you fools!”
Anyway, moving on. While there are some great scenes, some sequences fall short of excellence simply because they go on for too long. The pursuit through the rivers in Mirkwood goes on a little too long, and has a little too much of the gratuitous Legolas action. The Dwarves vs. Smaug in Erebor, similarly, goes on too long with little real progress. A good comparison would be Khazad-dûm in The Fellowship of the Ring: a fantastic action sequence with stages and consequences and humour. The Erebor sequence – although visually stunning, and a magnificent representation of a decayed Dwarf kingdom, lacks the same emotional attachment and the ‘stages’ which allow it to avoid becoming repetitive. Some of the fire diving, as well, was a bit over the top.
The Tauriel storyline fell a little flat, too. I appreciate the purpose it could give, since I assume she’s going to die in the next film at the Battle of the Five Armies, and thus giving Legolas a reality slap to move away from Thranduil’s isolationist stance and join the Fellowship, but I felt the dynamic with Kili, whilst well acted, just defied belief a little bit.
I appreciate that some Tolkien fans are up in arms about how different these films are from the books. I understand that point of view, being a huge fan myself. But I also appreciate the challenges Jackson has faced in putting these films together. He could have gone for a simple film version of The Hobbit book, which could have been fun, but would have fallen slightly flat as a standalone series of films. The ring, for instance, would never really have been explained, the Necromancer storyline had to be dealt with and he couldn’t really not make links between The Necromancer and Sauron like the books. Jackson took the decision to make a prequel to The Lord of the Rings and a Hobbit series at the same time, taking content from the appendices to join the dots between the two. This material is complicated, and written for the satisfaction of an academic mind and curiosity rather than for a Hollywood audience.
As a result, Jackson has had to improvise and invent to simplify and create a digestible film story. And where in AUJ this sometimes came across as carelessness or a lack of the same love and devotion he had displayed in The Lord of the Rings, it feels like that’s beginning to come together in TDOS. For instance, I can see more clearly the purpose of Azog’s character in exploring the Necromancer storyline (and I think this will be even more important in There And Back Again next year). Jackson’s had to make some tough choices, and while The Hobbit series will never be as faithful as The Lord of the Rings was, I’m beginning to appreciate that it can’t be. And that’s okay, because it’s still trying to be faithful to its continuity and film universe.
The last film was a disappointment. This one wasn’t, and that may partially be because I went in expecting to be disappointed. After all, with no Andy Serkis to blast out that wonderful scene again, would this film make up for it? I’m pleased to say that it did. It’s no Lord of the Rings, simply because as nice as the Dwarves are, I don’t think you could do a scene as emotional as Boromir’s death (after two films) because we’re simply not as emotionally connected with them as we would have been with any of the Fellowship. Whether that’s a failing of Jackson or Tolkien (gasp!), that’s up for the debate.
But I’m certainly excited by the next film. It has the potential to be pretty brilliant, and The Desolation of Smaug is certainly a step in the right direction.