For the center of Peter Jackson’s second journey through Middle Earth, we rejoin Gandalf, Bilbo and the merry band of Dwarves on their quest to reclaim Erebor. After overcoming a Goblin King last in their previous adventure, now they have to deal with giant spiders, a shadowy figure and an awakened dragon.
Director: Peter Jackson
Staring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Sylvester McCoy
Run Time: 161 Minutes
Release Date: Out Now
“Truly songs and tales fall utterly short of your enormity, O Smaug the Stupendous…”
When Peter Jackson was given the signal to start making these movies, he and the busy folks at WETA knew what awaited them. Just as the millions who have read The Hobbit many times over knew also, they were aware that at some point they would have to create a dragon.What’s more, a dragon that could hold his place on screen and be real. In this age of technological advances and groundbreaking CGI, they had to bring a fire-breathing dragon to the big screen. Thankfully for Jackson, they had experience when it came to using CGI to create a lifelike creature who would end up stealing the show from it’s human counterparts. For if you think Gollum was a work of art, things just went to a greater scale. It’s rare to be shocked by computer generated characters as there are so many these days but while watching Smaug converse with Bilbo firstly and then later Thorin, it makes you realise that it is still possible to be amazed by the big screen… and isn’t that what cinema is all about?
As easy as it would be to heap all praise on Richard Taylor and his team at WETA, we have to turn attention to that voice. Benedict Cumberbatch is certainly a man in demand these days, whether it be as Khan, Sherlock or even Julian Assange, and once again the man delivers in spades. As good as Smaug looks, he needs a voice and Cumberbatch gives it to him. Adding personality that you would probably not expect from a giant creature, the scenes between Smaug and Bilbo make the film. This helps greatly considering the marketing for the movie centres around the little hobbit entering a giant dragon’s lair. But let’s not forget that this film was about more than Cumberbatch’s dragon, and he was suitably assisted with some wonderful performances. Martin Freeman continues to show that there is no-one else more suited to play Bilbo Baggins, adding another several layers of character to the heroic hobbit. As An Unexpected Journey came to an end, Bilbo appeared to grow in courage and as the second outing goes on this becomes more and more evident. All thanks to Freeman; this shows exactly why there were the grand sum of zero complaints when he was cast in the role. It is an absolute joy to watch him grow more and more into the Bilbo role, with one scene in particular standing out; an early view of the power of the Ring beginning to grow and consume him, and Freeman’s excellent facial expressions sell it perfectly.
Away from the headline confrontation, there are some great performances that would likely steal any other film not starring a dragon. Franchise newcomer Evangeline Lilly is wonderful as the elf Tauriel, bringing a dynamic and energetic approach that the series had yet to possess. From a male viewer’s perspective, it is refreshing to have a female presence in a (dwarf) male-dominated outing. However if there is one criticism of the character – while nothing to do with Lilly’s portrayal – it’s the love triangle hinted at between her, Legolas and charismatic dwarf Kili. It feels almost shoehorned into the film and makes you wonder just exactly what demographic they are targeting with it. Many Tolkien-ites reacted with anger when the character was announced, with it’s creation seemingly confirming the film’s ‘padding out’ (rather inevitable when getting three 2.5-3 hour movies out of one book) and as good as it is to see her and as well-acted as the role is, for this writer’s liking there is far too much focus on a character that doesn’t even exist in the book. And that brings us to another third in the aforementioned love triangle; Orlando Bloom’s Legolas.
Yet another casting announcement met with confusion and more suggestion that Jackson was eagerly looking for ways to fill 160 minutes of screen time. Of course, Legolas is nowhere to be seen in the original book, though in Jackson’s defence, when the character in question is already established as one with long-life abilities, it isn’t exactly difficult to script him into a story heavily featuring elves, even if that story is set 60 years before Rings. However , no matter how you feel about Legolas’ presence, you can’t argue with Bloom’s performance here, as he slips straight back into the old routine and shows us why maybe Jackson was right – source material be damned – to introduce the character. There are also more newcomers, with Luke Evans’ Bard and Lee Pace’s Thranduil adding a determined hero and a new antagonist to the mix. Pace in particular shines as the Elven King, with his continued hatred of Thorin and all dwarves and attempt to derail our heroes’ quest making him pretty easy to hate. Meanwhile over in the almost quaint Venice-like city of Esgaroth, Evans is likeable as Bard and will be good to watch as the character – as the book fans will know – gets much larger involvement in the final part of the trilogy.
As far as character development goes, we get the first signs of a split between Bilbo and Thorin. With a significant part of An Unexpected Journey resting heavily on their relationship, the sequel gains a solid emotional cornerstone with their growing determination and obsession for gold creating a tension-building split between the two. We also get the aforementioned love triangle, though hopefully that is quietly dropped for the final outing next year as all characters involved gear up for the famed final battle. Indeed, with Tauriel and Legolas having no part in the book, Jackson doesn’t have ‘source material loyalty’ to worry about when it comes to cutting plotlines. Disappointingly, there is little in the way of advancement when it comes to the dwarves, with only Thorin (understandably) and Kili getting continued focus, such a step back after the first movie. Of course, this outing has a dragon, an Elven King and a Master of Lake-Town to introduce. Stephen Fry is amusing as Lake-Town’s leader, though like all good supporting actors are supposed to do he never threatens to steal the show. We also get a fleeting cameo from the intriguing Beorn (played by Mikael Persbrandt), a large man who has the uncanny ability to shapehift into a bear. Regrettably he is left behind far too quickly, though no doubt he will return in a much bigger capacity for the final film’s big battle.
You will notice that I have written little (or nothing at all) of Gandalf, such a focal figure of the Rings trilogy and the first Hobbit film. Early on here, he ventures off in search of the mysterious and evil Necromancer, and unfortunately we get little (or indeed nothing) in the way of resolution here. Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast goes along for the ride and also meets reduced screen time. Of course, this is all part of the build for the final part’s climatic battle, but it does make this film suffer as you can’t help but feel this is nothing more than a placeholder and possibly unnecessary if Jackson had just settled on two films for the book in the first place.
On the bad guy side of things, we get little more from the mysterious Necromancer than we did in the first film, with chief villain still being Azog, another character given a hugely-increased presence compared to his one-line mention in the book. We also meet Azog’s son, who takes over in the pursuit of Thorin and his band.
Away from the individual performances, Peter Jackson is clearly enjoying being able to take us to different parts of Middle Earth, with Esgaroth lovingly crafted and brought to the big-screen. And like his previous Rings outings, this one has some magnificent scenes that will be happily watched again and again. The genuinely creepy scenes in Mirkwood with the giant spiders and the thrilling barrel escape are technological marvels, with the extended barrel scene a joy to watch.
It’s inevitable that this trilogy will draw comparisons with the original Lord of the Rings threesome, and opening with a mysterious-looking bearded hero in the Prancing Pony does little to curb those, though this scene in question is intriguing and a nice little addition. However thankfully, comparisons do become less and less as the film goes on. While An Unexpected Journey mirrored The Fellowship of the Ring a little too much and suffered because of it, this film steers more to combining action with character development, though it does keep a slight Rings-like tone. After all, it has to really.
- Benedict Cumberbatch’s show-stealing performance as Smaug; credit also to WETA for possibly even surpassing the groundbreaking work they did on Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy
- Unlike the first film, Desolation of Smaug jumps into the action a lot quicker
- If we needed it, more proof that Martin Freeman was born to play Bilbo Baggins
- Feels too much like a placeholder designed purely to set up the final part of the trilogy
- From a source material point of view, far too much focus on characters not even in the book
- Little focus put on the other Dwarves other than Thorin and Kili