Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s fifth and penultimate venture into Middle-earth, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) sees J.R.R. Tolkien’s First World War parable delve deeper into the role of community as his unlikely hero Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) finally reaches the fabled Lonely Mountain. This second chapter in Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy adheres strictly to the rules of your classic three-act structure. Often referred to as the ‘confrontation’, the sophomore act sees its protagonist arrive at a higher sense of awareness in order to overcome the adversity they’re facing, with Bilbo and the company of dwarves he’s travelling with finally traversing the challenges of the Misty Mountains.
From a treacherous trip through Mirkwood Forest – an area to be avoided by even the slightest of arachnophobes – to the trailing threat of Orcs and Wargs, the adventurous company encounter jeopardy at every turn. That is until they receive protection from Bard the Bowman (an opportunity for Luke Evans to capitalise on his lyrical Welsh brogue) who escorts them to the derelict shipping port of Esgaroth (Lake-town). Here, the company’s presence is met with the type of frosty welcome you’d expect for a cluster of foreigner travellers arriving in a decaying industrial town governed by a selfish, gluttonous capitalist. Jackson again presents us with a magical realm illustrated with an undisputed richness, again capturing the grandeur of Tolkien’s universe – a world he has now surely appropriated as his own.
The climax of this journey is of course Bilbo’s highly anticipated encounter with the dragon Smaug who claims ownership of the hallowed, deserted galleries of the Lonely Mountain’s once-majestic halls. It’s here that Bilbo takes centre stage and relies on intelligence rather than brawn. Played – or rather voiced – by Benedict Cumberbatch, the reunion of Sherlock’s double act sparkles with the type of explosive chemistry you’d expect from a familiar pairing – the dragon Smaug’s smug, joyless smile interchangeable with Cumberbatch’s mischievous portrayal of Conan Doyle’s infamous detective. After the slow plodding of its precursor, the introduction of Smaug, and Bard the boatmen are welcome inclusions, finally bestowing us with characters sculptured and forged from Tolkien’s prose for Bilbo to encounter.
However, whilst The Desolation of Smaug is a marked improvement on the mediocre An Unexpected Journey, Jackson appears to have yielded to the paradigms of contemporary fantasy, padding out this tale with a barrage of stunts and excessively lengthy fight scenes. Ultimately, this reliance on spectacle impedes the stories organic evolution – one that’s already hampered by somewhat shapeless characters and a disappointing preference for CGI over traditional effects. These scenes mean this middle chapter feels like a film that’s constantly trying to furnish and justify its three-film, nine-hour runtime. As a litmus test for Jackson’s final instalment, The Desolation of Smaug shines a propitious stream of optimism onto a franchise that looked to be lost in a sea of mediocrity.
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