The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ian McKellan, Richard Irmitage, Evangeline Lilly
To judge half a story on its merits is perhaps a crime, but to judge a third of one may be a sin. Such infractions may be forgivable, however, when considering the massive scale of Peter Jackson’s films.
His latest, The Desolation of Smaug, one of three prequels to The Lord of the Rings series, has a runtime of 162 minutes, offers an appallingly abrupt ending, but will no doubt win accolades and garner riches for MGM studios.
In his first installment of the so-called Hobbit series, An Unexpected Journey (2012), Jackson created a three-hour montage of grunting and beard stroking. For its sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, Jackson picks up the pace, crafting a roller-coaster ride that makes use of his refined skills in 3-D filmmaking — a hijinks rites of passage which culminates in a confrontation with a fire-breathing dragon.
Both films, and the finale (slated for release next year), are based on J R Tolkien’s 1937 novel The Hobbit. Written during the heady days of rising continental tensions with Nazi Germany, Tolkien was arguably influenced by the events of the era. The elves in the story are isolationist, content to let the world burn rather than act; the humans of Lake Town, laid low by bad times, dream of prosperity and democracy, while the dwarves of Erebor, long exiled from their subterranean home by a fearsome enemy, harbour aspirations of a great feat of arms to reclaim their treasure-laden kingdom.
The plotting in The Desolation is worthy of Tolkien’s gargantuan vision and roughly picks up where the first film left off. A flashback set in the human town of Bree unites the wizard, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the leader of a company of dwarves who plan to recapture Erebor from the villainous, and surprisingly erudite dragon, Smaug (perhaps we have been weaned on too many dumb dragons in other pictures). More importantly, Oakenshield seeks to regain the Arkenstone, a vaunted family heirloom and restore the kingdom.
For the task of pilfering the stone from the dragon, Gandalf suggests the mild-mannered, nimble-fingered hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and a quest is born.
The plot unravels into three strands — hurling the proponents along separate story arcs. Not once does the sense of danger flag as our heroes battle man-eating spiders, vengeful orcs, elven intrigues and daunting enemies. But Middle-Earth purists will cry in outrage as Jackson, in his effort to maintain the ante, has taken the liberty of creating a new character, the elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, late of Lost).
Tauriel is set up as a potential love interest for Kili, the tallest and most handsome dwarf in the co mpany.
The problem is not so much that Jackson decided to refine the book for cinematic storytelling, but that the sense of disbelief this refinement has created. The blossoming relationship between Kili and Tauriel, while initially attractive, becomes eye-rolling by the finale. But these moments of saccharine overdose are offset by the pace of the action.
The film may be a cinematic delight, especially in 3-D, but it shows its chinks. The compelling story is sometimes disjointed — a victim of over-editing for runtime, but Jackson excels in juggling complex narratives. His other talent lies in helping MGM’s coffers to overflow like those at Erebor.