I remember my eager enthusiasm last year when I bounced into my local cinema to see Peter Jackson’s new Tolkien-universe film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I found An Unexpected Journey to be self-indulgent, over-stuffed and, frankly, painful to watch due to the bizarre use of 48fps. I was so thoroughly unimpressed by that film that I’ve only just got round to seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. What I can gladly say, is that Desolation of Smaug is no longer the same ultra HD “feels like someone scratched this with a razor on your retina” 48 fps experience as An Unexpected Journey. This is a definite improvement and Jackson has stated on record that it was a reaction to how unpleasant audiences found the first film. However what I did notice this time round was the slight overuse of shallow focus. Characters in the background are almost entirely invisible due to the blur and this was on a cinema screen. I dread to think how much of this film would be lost on a TV screen.
The plot is much, much more engaging. The half hour dishwashing sequence is joyously replaced by a half hour barrel rapids chase and it’s a welcome exchange. Richard Armitage (Thorin) and Luke Evans (Bard) are the standout acting performances in contrast to Ian McKellan (Gandalf) and Martin Freeman (Bilbo) seem to be on archetypical autopilot. While there was widespread outrage about Legolas’s appearance, and the love triangle that came with it, I found this one of the better handled parts of the film. Leaving aside the fact that Legolas’s eyes have changed to be bright blue in his young years and are brown when he grows up (probably so that a re-release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy can be sold with things like this “corrected”) Orlando Bloom (Legolas) and Evangeline Lily (Tauriel) give graceful, accomplished performances and it’s nice to have some romance to balance the incessant swashbuckling.
It does pain me to see how Jackson has abandoned the extras and prosthetics that made Lord of the Rings so good. Where before there would be three humans having a conversation there are now three CGI constructs. It’s good CGI but there’s something much more visceral in seeing something real on screen. An army of Uruk’hai made up of a thousand extras screaming will always be more scary than a wide shot where you can see the crowd cloning. Although, credit where credit is due, Smaug is a truly terrifying creation, although he does spend rather too much time doing the old “bond villain monologue” rather than advancing the film in any way. The cinematography and symbolism does borrow unashamedly from the Lord of the Rings to the point where it just feels as if Jackson is exploiting the positive associations to make us view Desolation of Smaug in a better light.
The real problem in this film is difficult to pin down. Everything is handled pretty well, the cinematography is good and it’s a truly engaging watch. The problem is that however nice it is, you can’t escape the feeling that this film just shouldn’t exist, at least not in this format. As the credits roll you are left with the sinking knowledge that the third film can only include battle scenes and made up filler material that wasn’t in the book. It stopped being a Tolkien adaptation a long time ago, it’s now a relatively good children’s fantasy film set in the same universe.
- Entertainment: 4/5
- Artistic: 2/5
- Intellectual: 2/5