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Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug, The

D: Peter Jackson / 161m

Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Sylvester McCoy

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) was, in some ways, a difficult movie to appreciate.  As the beginning of what is effectively now a six-film series, the difference in tone and approach threw some viewers who were expecting a match for The Lord of the Rings (2001-3).  Jackson and co-scriptwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, took the more humorous elements of Tolkien’s novel and weaved them into the story with accomplished ease.  They made several key decisions with the characterisations of the dwarves that left audiences unsure if the comedic aspects were appropriate or in keeping with the overall tone of the trilogy (not to mention the darker trilogy that follows it).  What seemed to be forgotten in the rush to criticise the movie was that it was the first of three: making any kind of criticism at this early stage was actually irrelevant.  As the first two Lord of the Rings movies were largely ignored at the Oscars, only for the third to be so heavily rewarded, so we should wait until all three parts of The Hobbit are released.  Then we can make a proper decision.

What is clear is that with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Jackson has hit his stride, and as a result, the trilogy has hit its stride as well.  The exposition of the first movie is largely dismissed with, and the introduction of new characters such as Thranduil (Pace) and Tauriel (Lilly) is handled concisely and with greater attention than before.  There is an even greater focus on action, with the barrel-rolling sequence a highlight, and a greater sense that this movie’s events fit in with, or more appropriately foreshadow, the events of The Lord of the Rings.

Having survived the attack by orcs at the end of the first movie, Bilbo (Freeman), Thorin (Armitage) and the rest of the dwarves set off into Mirkwood where spiders – and not just any spiders – inhabit the forest.  Meanwhile, Gandalf (McKellen) heads off to Dol Guldur to face the rising power of the Necromancer (Cumberbatch).  The dwarf company, or überfellowship, make it out of Mirkwood only to find themselves captured by elves.  With Bilbo’s help, they escape, and are pursued by orcs, Tauriel – who has developed a bit of a crush on dwarf Kili (Adrian Turner) – and Thranduil’s son Legolas (Bloom).  At Dol Guldur, Gandalf meets up with Radagast the Brown (McCoy) and finds that the Necromancer is preparing an orc army to march against the lands of the west.    The dwarves evade the orcs with the help of Bard the Bowman (Evans).  Bard lives in Lake-town, and he takes Thorin and his band there where they can both tend to Kili, who has been hit by a poisoned orc arrow, and plan the next step of their journey to the Lonely Mountain.  The orcs attack again but not before Thorin has left; Bard helps the dwarves that have been left behind and Tauriel and Legolas join the fray as well.  Bilbo finds the way into the Lonely Mountain where he encounters the dragon Smaug (Cumberbatch), and despite their best attempts the dwarves fail to kill him.  Enraged, Smaug breaks free of the mountain and heads to Lake-town to wreak his revenge.

The movie ends there, rather abruptly too, with only Bilbo’s anguished “What have we done?” to see out proceedings.  As might be expected there has been a large amount of criticism of the movie ending this way, but watching The Desolation of Smaug, and with Smaug’s entrance occurring around the two-hour mark, anyone even half aware of the movie’s running time would have known a resolution to the problem of Smaug was always going to be unlikely.  And it means that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) is going to have one hell of a start.

Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug, The - scene

The ending aside, the movie does still suffer from “middle child syndrome”, with too many storylines set up to be resolved in the next one, and the running time feeling a little too long.  Gandalf is sidelined for much of the movie (fairly reflecting the novel), while some of the dwarves are given very little to do indeed – anyone know something specific that Ori or Bifor did?  Radagast gets a cameo this time round (and repeats his bird under the hat trick), Azog (Manu Bennett) cedes his quest for Thorin’s head to Bolg (Lawrence Makoare), and the worst kept secret in town: the identity of the Necromancer, is revealed at last.  Oh, and there’s the weird matter of Legolas sporting contact lenses; it makes him look slightly alien rather than Elvish.

These minor quibbles aside, The Desolation of Smaug is a terrific addition to the complete saga, thrilling, intense, spectacular to look at with even more beautiful New Zealand scenery to devour, a continued line of humour that complements the increasing sombre tone (Legolas’ dismay at seeing a picture of Gloin’s son), the introduction of Lilly as Tauriel (this trilogy’s Arwen), Jackson’s complete mastery of both the material and the visual language needed to present it, a cast that more than matches him for commitment and artistry, and of course, the mighty Smaug, without doubt the most realistic, most impressive dragon ever imagined.  Voiced by Cumberbatch, Smaug is the movie’s highlight: an arrogant, vain, greedy, vicious, preening monster who trades verbal barbs with Bilbo in the movie’s best scenes.  Both Freeman and Cumberbatch are on superb form here, adding layers to their performances that bring out all the subtleties of the dialogue, and keeping the audience riveted as they spar back and forth.

With another year to go before the trilogy’s conclusion, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a more than satisfying instalment that works well and impresses on a regular basis.  There’s little doubt that Jackson and co are firing on all cylinders, and if the purists out there are still complaining about the increasing lack of fidelity to the original novel then they’re missing the point: this is an adaptation, and a wonderful one at that.

Rating: 9/10 – a rousing blend of action and spectacle that moves at breakneck pace, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug rarely disappoints; event cinema that we see too little of these days and absolutely best seen in 48hfr on an IMAX screen.