The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

***1/2

Reviewed by: Stuart Crawford

Smaug
"Benedict Cumberbatch lends this cruel, ancient dragon all the gravitas and otherworldliness that Sean Connery utterly failed to in Dragonheart."

I went into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with some pretty high expectations, only to have them trampled flat over three long plotless hours. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, by Peter Jackson taking the bold step of having things actually happen in the follow-up, Desolation Of Smaug.

With startling economy, a quick flashback to Bree recaps everything you need to know from the first film, and then we're launched straight into the action. Briefly, then: Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), rightful king of the dwarves, has assembled a company to march on the Lonely Mountain, wherein lies the Arkenstone of Thrain. With this symbol of authority he hopes to unite the dwarf clans to drive out and destroy the dragon Smaug, who usurped the dwarven homelands many years prior. The problem is he has to somehow get the Arkenstone out from the clutches of said dragon. To this end, meddling wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) has suggested they bring along a skilled burglar, one Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). Along the way there will be many trials and tribulations and etc. Also they have to get there before Durin's day, the end of autumn. Because of reasons. Up to speed? Great.

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At first this newfound pace is a little overwhelming: no sooner do we meet Beorn the skin-changer than we're off again, racing to Mirkwood with orcs in close pursuit. From this point on things settle down, and if they start to sag a little in the mid-section it's easily forgiven by the spectacular Smaug-filled finale. The scene where the dwarves escape their elven captors in barrels, racing down river rapids, is a kinetic action spectacular polished enough to rival anything in the LOTR films. Laketown follows the series tradition of looking both absolutely magnificent and exactly the way it's described by Tolkein. In fact, a couple of regrettable lapses in “remind the audience they're watching in 3D” aside, the visuals are flawless throughout.

One welcome use of three dimensions this time around is the characterisation. Armitage gets to differentiate Thorin from the shorter version of Aragorn he played in the first film, and it's a welcome break. Bilbo shows a few tremendous flashes of the one ring's malign influence, even if Martin Freeman spends most of the film straining to show he has more to offer than the limited script allows. I've come to accept that Ian McKellen is actually Gandalf and you'll have a hard time convincing me otherwise. Evangeline Lilly is outstanding as Tauriel, the female elf written into the film to cover for the book's bizarrely boys-only approach to characters. That she's immediately dropped into a love triangle (because that's what you do with female characters, right?) only shows that we still have a long way to go.

Still, the liberties taken with the source material are mostly to the good. The three-hour runtime feels somewhat justified this time round, as we've a whole lot of expanded Smaug action to get through when we finally reach the mountain. Benedict Cumberbatch lends this cruel, ancient dragon all the gravitas and otherworldliness that Sean Connery utterly failed to in Dragonheart: Smaug is a delight to watch. It's easily worth forgiving a protracted scene that goes precisely nowhere and seems to serve only as an oblique reference to his epithet Smaug the Golden as it means we get a lot more Smaug time.

There's still a lot of fat that could have been trimmed, don't get me wrong. The pointless 3D additions begin to grate after a while, there's a subplot involving Gandalf battling a blob of CGI darkness that really ought to have been saved for a videogame cutscene somewhere, and most of the dwarves remain completely interchangeable, but as it stands, Desolation Of Smaug is a vast improvement on its predecessor and a fun adventure outing in its own right.

Reviewed on: 12 Dec 2013
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The dwarves and their companions continue their quest to rid their homeland of the dragon, Smaug.
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Angus Wolfe Murray **1/2

Director: Peter Jackson

Writer: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, based on the book by JRR Tolkein

Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Stephen Hunter, Dean O'Gorman, Cate Blanchett, Sylvester McCoy, Stephen Fry

Year: 2013

Runtime: 161 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: New Zealand, US

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