The second installment in Peter Jackson’s cinematic trilogy adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit isn’t called The Desolation of Smaug for nothing, as it is the fiery king under the mountain that makes the movie such a must-watch for fans of the book and fantasy fiction lovers alike. However, the shear visual impact of the movie makes it a big budget blockbuster that’s got enough action, adventure and CGI wizardry to impress the majority of cinema goers.
The original story was published in 1937 as a children’s book and the movie does well to retain the playful prose of Tolkein’s work. While this makes it less serious at times than it perhaps should be, it does little to take away the gravitas of the movie, which builds throughout. The book was a product of its time as much as a work of fiction mirroring the build up to WWII and the aftermath of the global recession that span out of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Again the film does well to bring this element of the story to life, portraying the poverty of Esgaroth (Lake Town) and the coming storm of the dark armies of Mordor.
For anyone that has read the book, the movie will be pretty special to watch for the first time as you see the mythology of your youth come to life on the big screen in the most visually dramatic way. There are a lot of moments in the film that resonate with the way you will have imagined things looking while reading the book with epic scenes for the battle with the giant spiders of Mirkwood, the discovery of the door to the Lonely Mountain’s caves, Bilbo’s solo encounter with Smaug and the party of Dwarves’ skirmish with the dragon in the furnaces of Erebor.
The story picks up after the party’s escape from The Misty Mountains with Azog The Defiler and his Orc masses on their tales. Continuing their efforts to elude the hunting party and reach the door to The Lonely Mountain before the last light of Durin’s Day the band of Dwarfs, led by Thorin and Gandalf, along with the help of Bilbo Baggins, have the shape-changing strength of Beorn, the nightmare of Mirkwood, a tangle with the wood elves, passage through Lake Town and the full force desolation of Smaug ahead of them.
With the might of J.R.R. Tolkien’s storytelling behind it, the plot was always going to be one of the strongest aspects of the film, however, that doesn’t take anything away from Peter Jackson’s production, which does a very good job of recreating the epic, much in the same way they did for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. There have been plenty of bad movie adaptations of great books, and The Desolation of Smaug is definitely not one of them.
The casting is genuinely brilliant too with Ian McKellen (X-Men: Days of Future Past) as ever the perfect great wizard Gandalf. Martin Freeman (The World’s End) looks like he was born to play Bilbo Baggins, much in the same way as Elijah Wood was the quintessential Frodo. Richard Armitage is faultless as Thorin Oakenshield, the grim-faced leader of the company of dwarfs, including James Nesbit (James Nesbit’s new Zealand) as Bofur, mixing comedy, drama and action well.
Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean) returns as Legolas, looking even younger and more elf like than he did in The Lord of the Rings and he’s backed up by the austere presence of Lee Pace (Lincoln) as Thranduil, his father and the Elvenking. However, Bloom is well beaten as the coolest elf in the forest by Evangeline Lily (Lost) who plays her heart out as Tauriel, Chief of the Guards of Mirkwood.
There’s more cast flashes of greatness than we can mention in full in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but it would be unfair not to mention a few more. Luke Evans (Clash of the Titans) brings a lot of weighting to his role as Bard, the bargeman from Lake Town, and his performance is added to by the unsavoury transformation of Stephen Fry into The Master of the wooden settlement at the foot of the Lonely Mountain. It’s also cool to see one-time Doctor Who, Sylvester McCoy, back as Radagast the Brown, Gandalf’s wizarding pal.
Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek: Into Darkness) is starting to get a reputation for stealing the show and in his role as the legendary fire breathing dragon Smaug he does it once again. He’s managed to inject the deepest of timbres to his voice, added to by a little tech wizardry, to make the dragon under the mountain smoulder into life. While he also plays the fleeting necromancer of Dol Guldur, reprising his equally short role in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, his performance in the desolating title role is his real accomplishment.
It not all good news for the computer animation and special effects blockbuster as some of the scenes look a little too staged to convince, while others are so brilliant that they’ll genuinely take your breath away (or in the least make you a weird appreciation face). What this leaves is a bit of a mixed bag and while this is undoubtedly detracted by the 3D version of the film, it doesn’t account for all of the negatives. It’s particularly telling in some of the action and fight scenes that look a little too contrived, like they’re being performed in a Universal Studios theme park ride rather than in a carefully crafted, big budget movie.
If you’re pondering whether or not to watch the movie in 3D or not, our recommendation would be the standard version. The 3D effect adds to the staged look of a few scenes and while Smaug looks awesome in 3D the rest of the film suffers. For the more dedicated fans, we’d probably suggest watching it first in 2D and going again to catch it in 3D to see the dragon flying out of the screen. You can find our more about the final film in the trilogy at The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies release date, cast and trailer.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug review: 4/5