The latest instalment in this unnecessary trilogy proves you really can have too much of a good thing
The second film in a trilogy is always a tricky proposition, often hampered by the fact that it’s inevitably a bridge between two other films.Peter Jackson has struggled with this problem before, when constructing The Two Towers for his original Lord of the Rings trilogy. There he had two major issues - one was the structure of the book itself which tells two separate stories and the other was his decision to alter certain characters in post-production. In particular Arwen was changed from the warrior elf that Liv Tyler portrayed in The Fellowship of the Ring, to one that was more in keeping with the character in the original books. As shot, Arwen asked Galadriel for help (which is why Elves from Lothlorien arrive at Helm’s Deep), she brought Narsil to Aragorn and fought in the battle herself.
These changes required some careful reediting, extensive reshoots and the digital removal of Arwen from the battle footage that was already in the can. Jackson and his co-writers also moved certain events from the second book, specifically the encounter with Shelob, to the third film because it made more sense in terms of the story chronology. Whilst some these issues are still apparent in the finished film, it’s fair to say that Jackson largely succeeded in creating a narrative structure that worked both as a stand alone feature and and as the middle part of a trilogy.
The dubious decision to stretch The Hobbit over three films becomes painfully obvious.
The same could not really be said of The Desolation of Smaug and even more than the previous film, the dubious decision to stretch The Hobbit over three films becomes painfully obvious. Quite simply the narrative structure is a mess and the film ends on a cliffhanger that's more likely to annoy cinema-goers than leave them eagerly anticipating the final instalment. The ending in particular is a clear victim of the decision to milk this cash cow for all that it’s worth and whilst other film’s have ended on cliffhangers - Back to the Future Part II and The Matrix Reloaded for example - their final instalments were only six months later. In this case a year seems like an awfully long time to wait before watching Smaug to get his just desserts.
At least the filmmakers appear to have listened to some of the criticisms aimed at the first film. So gone are the jokey scenes and songs, to be replaced with a more sombre and serious atmosphere, which is in keeping with the intention of leading stylistically into The Lord of the Rings. The marketing has also down played the presence of the Dwarves, concentrating instead on the returning Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and new characters such as Bard (Luke Evans) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). In fact if you take a look at the theatrical poster, even Bilbo and Thorin barely get a look in. The thorny subject of HFR (High Frame Rate) has also been swept under the carpet, with only 20% of screenings using 48 frames a second this time around.
The intention to connect the film more overtly with The Lord of the Rings is made apparent from the opening scene where, in a flashback, Thorin meets Gandalf at The Prancing Pony and Peter Jackson appears in a similar cameo to the one he had in The Fellowship of the Ring. The scene doesn’t really add anything to the actual story and, like so much of the film, feels like filler. After that it’s back to business as usual, with Bilbo and the Dwarves being chased by a pack of Orcs. As is often the case in these films, there are a lot of aerial shots of people running across pretty New Zealand landscapes. You also can’t help but wonder why, at the end of the previous film, the eagles didn’t drop the Dwarves off a bit closer to the Lonely Mountain but we’ll blame Tolkien for that one.
After that the plot mainly follows that of the book, rattling along at a break-neck pace as it introduces Beorn and the spiders in Mirkwood, before the Dwarves are captured by the Wood-elves - a very different bunch of Elves than we're used to seeing. These scenes are almost exclusively action set-pieces, with very little dialogue from either the Dwarves or Bilbo, who doesn’t really say much until his encounter with Smaug. It’s mostly a repeated cycle of the Dwarves getting into trouble and then Bilbo saving them, which again is a problem that can be levelled at the source novel. Whilst the barrel escape goes on too long, uses too much CGI and often looks like a theme park ride. Once we get to the Wood-elves, it’s time for Legolas to reappear and although he isn’t actually mentioned in the book, the Elvenking Thranduil is his father so it isn’t unreasonable to assume he would have been present.
However, perhaps in a desperate attempt to tap into the greater popularity of The Lord of the Rings, what should have been a charming cameo becomes a starring role and Legolas quickly outstays his welcome. You can only stand so many over-the-top action scenes and shots of Orlando Bloom running around, firing arrows and decapitating Orcs before you begin to get bored. In fact the self-indulgent nature of many of the action scenes is one of the films major failings. They just go on for too long, perhaps to help pad out the running time, and they rely too much on rather ropey CGI. In fact, the excessive use of computer animation robs the film of the kind of grounded reality that Jackson sought to achieve on The Lord of the Rings and too often the action ends up looking like the 'cut scene' in a video game.
As is often the case in Peter Jackson’s films, the effects can range from incredible to slightly rubbish - sometimes within the same scene! There’s no question that Smaug is a remarkable digital creation and thanks to the skill of Weta Digital, he's the high point of the film. However despite all this creativity and talent, and the film is beautifully designed, somehow a simple scene like Legolas riding his horse can look laughably fake. The 3D at least is well composed although because Jackson shot these films at 48fps, he felt he could move the camera more than you would normally and this backfires somewhat at 24fps, where the excessive movement makes the 3D difficult to watch. The cinematography is generally superb but a series of in the water POV shots during the barrel escape look very digital and thus draw you out of the movie in the same way that HFR did with the previous film.
There’s no question that Smaug is a remarkable digital creation and he's the high point of the film.
One of the most successful aspects of this adaptation is the introduction of Tauriel, an elf warrior with feelings for Legolas who also develops a touching relationship with the Dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner). This is a completely new character, no doubt created by the writers to have at least one female in a leading role, and she is one of the few additions that really works - partly because Evangeline Lilly looks suitably Elven. The other real strength, and frankly the main reason for watching the film, is Smaug because nothing improves a film like a fire breathing dragon with the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch. In much the same way as Bilbo’s conversation with Gollum was the high point of the previous film, so his meeting with Smaug provides the best scenes in the new movie.
The design and realisation of Lake Town is another high point, as is Luke Evans appearance as Bard the Bowman. Unfortunately the casting of Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake Town feels out of place, partly because he is more of a TV personality these days than a legitimate actor. The decision to introduce a degree of politics into Lake Town also seems misguided, as it detracts from the main plot and again just seems to have been added to expand the running time. The same is true of many of Gandalf’s scenes and although he does keep disappearing in the book, it would have made more sense to move these scenes to the third film, allowing Smaug to be killed at the end of this film and thus giving it a more satisfying conclusion. Many of Gandalf’s scenes relate directly to the return of Sauron, so once again they would fit better into the third film.
Whatever our concerns about Gandalf’s role in the film, Ian McKellan remains excellent, as does Martin Freeman as Bilbo. Even the Dwarves are less annoying, although perhaps that’s because they’re mostly restricted to action scenes. Ken Stott’s Balin remains the voice of reason but the company’s decision to abandon the quest after all they have been through just because they can’t find a key hole seems ridiculous. Thorin’s character is also becoming increasingly annoying, although again this is in keeping with the book. However his refusal to accept Thranduil’s aid in return for certain gem stones just seems stupid, even if he does hate the Elves. The gem stones that Thranduil covets made an appearance in the extended cut of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which continues Jackson’s habit of using the extended cuts to introduce plot devices that are important in later films.
Ultimately there is much to like in the latest instalment of The Hobbit and Smaug alone is worth the price of admission but despite an attempt by the filmmakers to create a more serious tone, the narrative feels desperately stretched. Flashbacks and cutaways extend the running time but often detract from the main narrative drive, whilst the ending is very unsatisfying. The performances are generally excellent, the effects are impressive for the most part and no doubt younger fans will love all the action. However to steal a line from Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring - the film ultimately does feel stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.
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