Film Review: The Desolation of Smaug

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(2013) USA/New Zealand, 161 minutes

DIRECTOR: Peter Jackson | CAST: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lily, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace, Aidan Turner |RATING: 3.5/5

I wasn’t looking forward to SMAUG, THE DESOLATION OF. There were reasons. Mostly because the first part of the trilogy THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY was a messy and lacklustre affair. It did not compare well with any of director Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS movies.

The original book The Hobbit is a quite straightforward tale with an interventionist narrative voice. It has a kind of 1940s English nursery feel about it. Depending on your point of view, this can seem cosy or cloying. The Hobbit was written specifically for children. It has a quite different tone to that which Tolkien employed in his later Lord of the Rings novels. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were connected, but very different.  Unfortunately, in looking to make the movie prequels seem more congruent to their sequels, the original tale has become somewhat trampled and blurred.

The original story has hobbit Bilbo Baggins, accompanying a party of thirteen dwarves to Erebor, a.k.a the Lonely Mountain. Here the expedition’s leader, Thorin Oakenshield, hopes to regain the magnificent gold-filled kingdom of his grandfather. This involves locating a gem known as the Arkenstone and confronting Smaug, the dragon who conquered Erebor in the first place.

When we left AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, Bilbo and the dwarves were rescued from a protracted battle scene. They were dropped off at The Carrock by giant eagles and left in sight of the distant Lonely Mountain, leading us to wonder whether the eagles are like taxis and the dwarves just ran out of money.

The second movie, unlike this review, gets moving speedily.  I wasn’t fully into it until the 30-minute mark, but from there I was rarely bored. The flick is replete with excellent CG creatures. Beorn in bear form, the Mirkwood Spiders and of course Smaug himself are all excellently brought to life. The more humanoid folk are a little less interesting. All the orcs are dull and although they are visually different from each other, they feel like cookie cutter villains; seemingly one orc, multiplied.

There has been some attempt to more clearly distinguish the dwarves from each other. Thorin is obviously the Big Cheese. As King Under The Mountain, he is a handsome and rather tall dwarf whose connections stretch back generations to New Zealand’s Flying Nun Records. Fili and Kili are Thorin’s nephews and also fall into the ‘hot dwarf’ category. The rest of the crew are harder to sort. There’s Balin, the eldest, who reminds me of the actor and third Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee. There’s Bofur who reminds me of James Nesbitt from Cold Feet because he is played by James Nesbitt. From there it gets a little hazy. There’s one who seems gone but keeps returning, called Fifo, there’s a sculptor named Fimo, Nori the seaweed farmer, Ritalin, Ventolin, Oin, Gloin and Duh-Doin.

New to the trilogy is the elf character Tauriel played by Canadian actor Evangeline Lily. Like Liv Tyler’s Arwen in LOTR, Tauriel exists because it’s the 21st century and the story needs an ongoing female character. She is one of the elves we meet in Mirkwood. Orlando Bloom reappears as Legolas and he joins Tauriel in the running, jumping, shooting arrows and killing orcs bits. These are very entertaining. If you look closely, Mr Bloom looks a little older, but because he has the aid of world-class make-up and special effects and he is not as other mortal men, he gets away with it.  ­­

Oddly, there is something of a love triangle constructed between Tauriel and Legolas and Kili. It’s not in the book, but who am I to quibble? Can a dwarf not look upon an elf? Interestingly, Lily is on record saying that her one stipulation when she took the gig was to not be involved in a tacked on romantic subplot. When she was called back for the 2013 reshoots, apparently all that material had been added.

The seemingly tacked on section that continues to bore me is the Necromancer stuff. Yeah, I get that it will lead to the giant Battle of the Five Armies in part 3. And it is the bit with Gandalf of whom there is too little. However, it doesn’t feel like it contributes to the forward motion of the story. I hear tell that the writers  (Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyes and Guillermo del Toro) raided The Hobbit footnotes, The Silmarillion, Finnish mythology and The Berenstain Bears Visit The Dentist in order to add to the relatively svelte narrative of the original book.

I saw the 3D High Frame Rate version. As usual, I don’t give a rat’s about 3D and it was neither here nor there or back again as far as I was concerned. The High Frame Rate seemed less obtrusive this time, but needs further development.

All up then, as a nit-picky easily disgruntled reviewer, I believe I am now sufficiently acclimatised to this new world. It is not the book version of The Hobbit. It is more like an epic-ified adventure, based on The Hobbit. A Raiders of the Lost Arkenstone, if you will. I was mostly entertained and felt drawn back into Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth.

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