Parkour! Fire! Parkour! Dragon!
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!!!!
Another magnificent return to Middle-Earth. Peter Jackson’s fifth time at the helm of cinematic Middle-Earth is full of breathtaking action sequences and the revelation of the most amazing dragon to ever grace the silver screen is the grand capper of the entire film. The Desolation of Smaug begins with a traditional-feeling scene taken from Tolkien’s supplementary short story The Quest for Erebor in which Gandalf the Grey meets with Thorin Oakenshield to persuade him to undertake the quest from An Unexpected Journey. It’s a great little flashback scene set in the town of Bree that provides a nice little moment for the story before the film propels forward on an incredibly fast pace (which slows considerably when the crew reaches Laketown, but for the best). What follows is an exhilarating sequence of set pieces, with one specifically memorable piece in the Mirkwood Forest where massive spiders attack the crew. It is absolutely terrifying and potentially might give you nightmare for a good while to come while Peter Jackson gets to show off his chops from his background as a horror film director. A brilliantly choreographed scene follows shortly thereafter, with the dwarves and Bilbo Baggins escaping the Wood Elves in barrels coursing down a river. What was a simple escape scene in the book gets transformed into a great chase sequence with the elves in pursuit of the company along with orcs, turning into a semi-three-way battle sequence on the river. But it is when Bilbo enters Erebor and meets Smaug that the film reaches it absolute crescendo. Much had been made of Smaug and how his entire frame was kept hidden from the public for most of the franchise’s history. Even his reveal, two hours into the film, is done slowly and when Smaug reveals himself in all of his terrifying glory, he is easily one of the most amazing sights ever seen on screen. Imbue him with Benedict Cumberbatch’s silky, villainous voice and he’s a winner. The film ends on a beautiful cliffhanger that is absolutely annoying in many ways, but the shot of Bilbo’s terrified face was arguably the best way to end the brilliant second installment of the Hobbit trilogy.
One of Jackson’s greatest strengths arguably is his ability to get the best performances out of his cast. Richard Armitage has never been greater as the serious and determined Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror. In Smaug, however, Thorin begins to feel the effects of the gold sickness that had doomed Erebor in the first place. He erratically becomes obsessed with the ultimate goal of uncovering the Arkhenstone to prove his legitimacy to rule and that begins to take precedence over everything else. Kili and Fili get more exposure in the dwarves company, with Kili being given a surprisingly sweet love story with the elf Tauriel. Bombur is an action hero in the river sequence and plays his role with aplomb. Bilfur, as always, is the only one asking “Where’s Bilbo?”. It’s kind of touching, actually. Martin Freeman as Bilbo is given less screen time in what is arguably his story, but the slow power of the Ring and Bilbo’s realization of it is brilliantly done, especially with the vicious way Bilbo kills a spider in the Mirkwood Forest. Ian McKellan is a show-stealer in the limited time he gets as Gandalf the Grey and Mikael Persbrandt gives a memorable turn in his all-too-brief appearance as Beorn. In the elves company, Orlando Bloom is as reliable as always as Legolas and Lee Pace as his father King Thranduil is absolutely magnificent (as are his eyebrows). Evangelline Lily is the standout amongst the elves, however, not only because she was created entirely for the films, but because of the absolute ferocity, independence, and genuine kindness she brings to the role of Tauriel. It’s refreshing to see a female action hero kicking so much ass in a film dominated with male characters (not the fault of the filmmakers, just to be clear). Stephen Fry sneaks in as the cunning Master of Laketown who hates election and pompous absurdity. Luke Evans is empathetic as Bard the Bowman, a democratic advocate who risks everything to protect the people of Laketown and has a tense confrontation scene with Thorin that is wonderful to behold. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug is one of the most memorable villains of all time and he is fantastically brilliant in his silky, evil voice. And the motion capture performed for Smaug is incredible, second only to Gollum.
The Desolation of Smaug is filled with phenomenal action sequences. The Mirkwood Forest spider attack is followed by the breathtaking barrel sequence and the ultimate culmination is the confrontation with Smaug. The elves in particular here are incredibly flexible, jumping from branch to branch firing arrows with ease and it is enormously tempting to shout “Parkour! Parkour! Parkour!” every time an elf does that, but I would advise against doing so in a live theater. The set pieces in all fairness work as well as they do in a large part due to the amazing choreography that allows for every frame of the film to come alive during these sequences, nothing is empty. A standout sequence in the film in essence encapsulates Gandalf’s entire journey in the second installment, where the wizard travels to Dol Goldur to confront the threat of the Necromancer. Gandalf’s fight with the shadowy monster is a sight to behold, as it culminates in the reveal of Sauron. Sauron’s coming is a benchmark scene of the Hobbit trilogy, with this installment more than the first one serving as a bridge to The Lord of the Rings trilogy that follows chronologically after There and Back Again.
Peter Jackson as a director has his greatest strength in world-building. Even if a member of the audience hates everything about the film, it is ridiculously difficult to argue with his ability to create gorgeous worlds populated in every single frame with an incredible amount of detail. It’s incredibly immersive. The Mirkwood Forest sequence is a highlight of his abilities. Bilbo slowly rises up a tree as an escape route from the maddening ways of the forest. The eerie, dark forest gives rise to a brilliant plethora of color as Bilbo rises out of a vibrant forest canopy, with the Lonely Mountain and the Kingdom of Erebor lying tantalizingly on the horizon. It’s enchanting. And then Bilbo drops right back into the eerie forest. It’s brilliant technical work. The costumes are brilliant, especially Thranduil’s attire and that crown that looks useful as an impaling tool. The hair and makeup are as impressive as ever, especially with the dwarves. The cinematography and art-direction are absolutely spellbinding, enriching each frame with richness. WETA Digital deserves special praise here as the visual effects supervisors, outdoing themselves with Beorn, the spiders, the Orcs, and especially their creation of the awe-inspiring Smaug the Dragon. It is difficult to imagine the sheer amount of work that was done in creating digital creatures from scratch that felt real in the film. They are truly amongst masters of their craft.
Howard Shore scores Smaug with a brilliant beat, although in the film the score can sometimes be overshadowed by the action sequences. The film opens with the “Quest for Erebor” piece, an epic compilation that alone sells the epic nature of their quest. The score for Laketown is appropriately peppy and bizarre, loud as the film’s pacing slows down considerably. The score for the spiders of Mirkwood Forest is terrifyingly creepy (listening to it alone in the dark is a good way to feel unnerved, I’ve tried it). Smaug’s theme is my personal favorite of the soundtrack, slow and haunting as it builds up a terrifying crescendo. Brilliant work as always by Shore here.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a fantastic addition to the Middle-Earth saga, even if the cliffhanger ending leaves you fuming (it is, however, gorgeously shot). If it suffers, it suffers from the inherent realization that many of the film’s plot threads will not be solved until the capper of the trilogy, There and Back Again, hits theaters next December. However, that shouldn’t dampen your enthusiasm for the film at all. Plenty have asserted that the Hobbit should not have been a trilogy, and that though is what it is. But the reality is that indeed there is a trilogy instead of a duology and the filmmakers realized there wasn’t enough material in the original book to sustain three films, hence the addition of Tolkien’s appendixes and the addition of Tauriel and Legolas into the story. The Desolation of Smaug deviates the most from Tolkien’s works, but at the end of the credits, there isn’t a feeling that the film was sacrilegious towards its source material in any way. The film is fast-paced (very fast-paced), exhilarating, and even though it runs for two hours and forty minutes, you can’t help but wish it had been a lot longer.
Title: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Jackson
Producers: Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Based On: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
Starring: Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lily, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Scott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom
Music: Howard Shore
Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie
Editing: Jabez Olssen
Studios: New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, WingNut Films
Distributers: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running Time: 161 minutes
Release Date: December 12th, 2013 (New Zealand); December 13th, 2013 (U.K., U.S.)
Image Courtesy: Hellraptor @ Deviant Art