As a reader of the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and one who counts Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy as my favourite film series, I, like many others, was a little sceptical of three Hobbit films being made. That was until I reread JRR Tolkien’s book again this year.
In contrast to Tolkien’s thoroughly detailed prose in LOTR, his prequel is essentially a children’s book. And for a journey of such grand proportions and dire consequences, its episodic fairytale voice on paper can be frustratingly cursory at times. As such, in order to be fitted into the grand mosaic of the war for Middle Earth, the story does lend itself to creative extrapolation – both in how each event is realised and also how they figure in the wider scheme of things. This considered, I choose to interpret this adaptation, penned by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, as not drawing the story out, but rather putting the material in context, with a bit of eye candy for good measure. In fact, if you take away the padding, this telling is quite faithful, and dazzlingly shot in 48-frame vision, it brings an originally very thinly told story to vivid life.
In The Desolation of Smaug, we kick off as Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen), Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the Dwarves, headed by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), continue to flee the relentless orc Azog. Taking refuge with a lone shapeshifter, the band takes time to regroup before resuming their journey to the Lonely Mountain, where the dragon, Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), holds residence in the great halls of Erebor.
To get there, they will have to travel through the poisoned forests of Mirkwood, negotiate with untrusting elves, battle foul beasts, and gain the backing of the men of Laketown at the foot of the mountain – all without Gandalf, whose attention is drawn to rumours of a dark force emanating from the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur.
As a middle chapter, the storytelling can be a little chaotic with Gandalf disappearing for large sections and Armitage’s stubborn, proud and narrowminded Thorin not quite providing the same sage presence. However, Freeman delightfully validates his casting as Bilbo Baggins, perfectly combining quiet courage with a dash of overawed panic.
The extra-literary additions of Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly as Legolas and Tauriel haven’t pleased everyone and their average dramatic output here might not change their minds. However, Tauriel does represent practically the only strong female presence in the series so her inclusion does relieve this from being a total dude-fest. As for Legolas, if you remember him single-handedly taking down an Oliphaunt, you’ll see his worth here, especially in the barrel escape scene, which is undoubtedly the best of the series so far.
Of course, the film’s central attraction is Smaug, who fittingly puts everyone else to shame. Majestic and menacing in equal measure, this dazzling creation is exactly what the doctor ordered and, with some infectious dialogue, makes for a memorable villain.
In Jackson’s view, it seems nothing is done unless it is done to excess and this dizzying flurry of action may be exhausting for some. However, it is nothing if not a spectacle and leaves me eagerly waiting for more.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug will be in Australian cinemas from Dec 26 through Roadshow Films.