When Smaug’s giant reptilian eye slowly slid open and his gravelly growl vibrate through the theatre in the final seconds of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was ravenous for more of the prrrecioussss. Instead, I was handed a black screen, credits, and another year to wait. I found myself saying aloud in the darkness, “Are you kidding me?! It’s over?!” My contribution to the audience-wide chorus of exasperation, however, proved once more the brilliance of the film’s director, Peter Jackson.
I joined the throngs flocking to the theatres to revel in the second installment of the tripartite film series with the excitement and trepidation of an expectant fan. Early reviews had dubbed it a marked improvement over its precursor, which some had felt lacked excitement, but I had not shared such opinions of the first film. As a J.R.R. Tolkien devotee, I was particularly ambivalent about the addition of a female character not present in the books, Tauriel. But I was, of course, expecting great things from the twin geniuses of Tolkien and Jackson.
The Desolation of Smaug follows Bilbo and the thirteen dwarves through Mirkwood Forest, home of the fiery Elven warrior-maiden Tauriel, and the golden-haired Elf-Adonis, Legolas (let’s just say Orlando Bloom’s still got it), son of the great yet grumpy King Thranduil. From there, the company carries on to Esgaroth (also called Lake-Town) where they stay just long enough to get their aid, Bard the Bargeman, into all sorts of trouble. Then, at last, they arrive at Erebor, the dwarves’ stolen homeland beneath the Lonely Mountain, currently serving as the dragon Smaug’s staggeringly shiny bedroom.
Smaug towers as the centrepiece of this epic film. His animation is nothing short of stunning, and he is voiced to perfection by the richly talented Benedict Cumberbatch. He succeeds in both being genuinely terrifying and gloriously majestic as he chases Bilbo and later the dwarves through the derelict halls of Erebor.
The spiders, too, deserve mention. If you watched The Return of the King and, like me, had a hard time with Shelob, consider her a pleasant reprieve for your arachnophobia in comparison to the eight-legged horrors unleashed in this film. Not only are they monstrous and plentiful, but they speak in hideous, raspy voices. Skin-crawlingly horrid though they are, they are yet another credit to Peter Jackson’s crack animation team.
Whatever reasonable expectations one might have of the acting given the calibre of the writing and directing, Martin Freeman (Bilbo) and Richard Armitage (Thorin) vastly surpass them. The pleasure of Freeman’s performance is found in his detail — the little ticks, the small gestures, the voice cracks, the minute expressions. He crafts a rich and authentic Bilbo that you can’t help but wish you could play riddles with. Armitage’s Thorin is richly expressive, which must be recognised as a huge accomplishment given that the actor was limited largely to his eyes and voice, as much of Armitage’s face was concealed by prosthetics. Though Thorin grows ever darker and more dangerous as the quest wears on, Armitage gives him a scarred and saddened soul that the audience can sympathise with, arguably even more so than in the book.
The action scenes, though well done, sometimes seemed a touch over-the-top . One couldn’t help but roll their eyes at Legolas skipping along the river on the heads of thoroughly-disgruntled barrel-bound dwarves while effortlessly shooting down Orcs. Legolas’s spectacular action sequences were used more sparingly in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and arguably to greater effect. It must be allowed, however, that such sequences added to the sense of light-hearted awe which is far more characteristic of The Hobbit than the subsequent trilogy.
The love-triangle between Kili, Tauriel and Legolas, however, was an unnecessary and cumbersome imposition on the plot, requiring Kili being repetitively placed in mortal danger so Tauriel could unfailingly save him. This stands out as a rather cheap crowd-pleaser, particularly given that it conveniently involves three of the most attractive characters in the film (two of whom having not even appeared in the book). It detracted from the genius of Tolkien’s storytelling, which was evidently originally entertaining enough given the book’s enduring success and the film franchise.
The character Tauriel generally smacked of “Lilly”-gilding. Though portrayed fairly well by Evangeline Lilly (get it now?), the token female warrior did not serve any obvious purpose (other than pleasing statisticians). While the trilogy provides a precedent for the successful expansion of female roles, Tauriel is an unimaginative device in comparison to her illustrious and effective female predecessors of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
From the depths of the Elven cellars in Mirkwood to the heights of Erebor, The Desolation of Smaug more than earned its three-week perch at the box office’s top spot. Offering up three hours of pure cinematic delight, and though it trips over a few small and forgivable flaws, it leaves you white-knuckled and salivating.
Even after five viewings.
– Contributed by Emily Willan