The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

h-dosA year ago, I told you what I thought of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first instalment of Peter Jackson’s latest Tolkien adaptation. Looking back over that review, I see I was in a forgiving mood over a film that I mostly enjoyed, but which left me unsure of the wisdom of adapting the material. “The fact is that the story of The Hobbit just isn’t big enough to support all this peripheral stuff,” I said. “It’s partly about pace – which is sluggish in the first half, though it perks up considerably as the film progresses – but it’s also about blind alleys. A straight telling of the story would have been simpler and cleaner … and you’d certainly get there and back again in less than three movies.”

Now I’ve seen The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I see no reason to change that stance. If anything, I’m feeling less forgiving that I was back in December 2012. Once again, the episodic nature of the story trips it up (I’m sure Tolkien die-hards were happy to see the character of Beorn on the screen, for example, but as far as this film’s concerned he exists solely to give our heroes some ponies, just when they need a ride, and is thus superfluous). And the plethora of characters, none of which is given enough screen time for solid character-building, continues to be a problem.

Things improve as the film goes on. I was initially sceptical about the idea of Tauriel – a wood-elf character created entirely by the filmmakers – but Evangeline Lilly’s convincing performance makes her thoroughly engaging – more so than Legolas, for whom you might think she exists only as love interest. Likewise, Luke Evans (who recently impressed me in the BBC drama The Great Train Robbery) puts in a good turn as Bard.

If I found it hard to care about what all these thinly-drawn characters were up to, I did at least enjoy the action sequences – more so than the first film, actually. The barrel-ride through the rapids is spectacular – a bravura piece of choreography, executed with tremendous wit and style. And Bilbo’s grand confrontation with the dragon Smaug is a triumph. The ensuing running battle between dragon and dwarves teeters on the brink of Jackson-excess, but overall works much better than the comparable escape from goblin-town in the first film.

I wrote recently on the Cinefex blog that dragons are difficult. So, is Smaug any good? My answer is an enthusiastic “yes” … although I still have a few reservations about the challenges of putting dragons up on the silver screen. Smaug is enormous, sinuous and threatening, the epitome of the fire-breathing dragon of traditional European myth. Jackson’s staging is clever and unpredictable, with the blocking of the action and the placing of the camera ably balancing tremendous shifts of scale. Smaug himself is a digital marvel, as are the shifting dunes of gold coins through which he surges. Still, it’s scale that leaves me with a lingering doubt about scenes like this. It’s just so hard to get real interplay between characters when the size difference is so vast. All the same, Jackson makes dragon-wrangling look pretty effortless.

I saw The Desolation of Smaug in IMAX HFR, just as I did An Unexpected Journey. I’m still unsure what to make of High Frame Rate. I don’t share the hatred expressed by many people (whose views I greatly respect). For many scenes – especially big digital set-pieces, or lyrical landscape reveals such as the gorgeous wide shots of Laketown at sunrise – I think I love it. At more intimate moments – talking head shots, for instance – it still looks too much like cheap TV. Scenes that are heavily comped have a tendency to look heavily comped, with textures and colours sometimes looking overwrought. I felt something was different about the HFR in this second film. Maybe the apparent shutter angle was tweaked or something. Overall, I felt it intruded less this time around. Or maybe I’m just getting used to it.

A year to go until The Hobbit: There And Back Again wraps up the trilogy. Will Jackson manage to end the trilogy on a high? We’ll just have to wait and see. Right now it’s Christmas, which means I have a mountain of food to eat and more than one seasonal bottle to uncork. Got to get my priorities right. Right?

Enjoy the holidays and I’ll see you all next year. Merry Christmas!

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