DIR: Peter Jackson • WRI: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro • PRO: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner • DOP: Andrew Lesnie • ED: Jabez Olssen • DES: Dan Hennah • MUS: Howard Shore • CAST: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch
The second of the three Hobbit films actually begins with a scene which takes place before the start of the previous film, possibly as some sort of joke at the expense of people who think these movies are already needlessly long. Regardless, we soon pick up where the last film ended with the Fellowship, the Company and the titular Hobbit on their adventure to the Lonely Mountain to fight a dragon. On this increasingly circuitous journey they stumble across numerous secondary characters and plotlines which latch on to them like lost children, one of which involves a shadowy, evil force growing in power…
Okay, let’s get the praise out of the way first so that we can move on to the rant because this film is going to receive near universal praise and rake in money no matter what anyone says. Part of me wishes that Jackson and his production team were only making the original trilogy now because, even though those films have aged reasonably well, these films only continue to get better and more impressive-looking with each instalment. The set designs and their believability are only matched by the simply superb CGI. Even with the best examples of CGI a slight disconnect between the real and the generated always remains. In this film (and to a lesser extent its predecessor) you really have to stare in wonder at the work that’s gone into the likes of Smaug (Cumberbatch). The only reason you really know it’s CGI is because there are (sadly) no dragons to put on film. I realise how trite this all sounds but after so many films in the last decade getting by on acceptable CGI, it’s truly a pleasure to be gobsmacked by what can be achieved with it all over again.
Speaking of Smaug, it would be remiss not to report that yes, Benedict Cumberbatch as a dragon is as wonderful in practice as it sounded on paper. He’s very reminiscent of Hopkins’ Lecter in his initial encounter with Bilbo (Freeman); dripping with menace but hiding it behind a polite yet powerful demeanour that’s almost mesmeric due to his careful, drawn-out enunciations. The rest of the cast are, as expected, almost all wonderful. Freeman continues to prove a stroke of genius casting, embodying a far more charismatic and innately humourous lead than Elijah Wood ever was. His comic timing but more importantly his use of physicality for comedic effect is a delight to watch. Ian McKellen gives it his all in a role where any other actor his age, playing a character like that would simply phone it in. The one glaring weak-link is the (pointlessly) returning of Orlando Bloom who still can’t emote to save his life and looks simply hilarious in action scenes where he’s clearly trying to come across as every bit the stoic, badass action hero that he very much is not. Bless.
Sadly, Bloom’s acting is only the tip of the iceberg. Honestly, I don’t think that I would in good conscience recommend this film to anyone but the most die-hard of Tolkien fans. The first film got a pass because it seemed (from the three titles of these movies at any rate) that Hobbit Pt. 1 would get the dull stuff out of the way leaving an entire second film for the Smaug portion of the plot (read: the only portion of the plot the more casual viewer is truly interested in) and yet here we are two films in and Smaug has had maybe fifteen minutes screen-time and an infuriating ‘to be continued’ right as the film is reaching what seems to be its action climax. To describe the film as slow and meandering is laughably inadequate but it’s forgivable (or at least tolerable) when you know it’s building toward something big and exciting. Pulling such a cheap, money-grabbing (better pay to see next year’s sequel, kids!) stunt after so very many, intolerable, unnecessary, and increasingly screen-time-cluttering scenes tips the scales right into ‘unforgivably boring’ territory. The end of this film would be akin to the first Hunger Games film being split in two and ending the first part right as Katniss entered the Games. Sure the die-hards will still enjoy all the talking and world-building but the large portion of the audience made up of less invested viewers who came to be entertained will be very angry and likely bored.
The prequel nature of these films also raises some issues. The side plot (one of the dozen or so that seems to be on-going at any given moment) involving Gandalf (McKellen) sees him investigating a mysterious enemy who goes conspicuously unnamed for most of the film but if you really can’t work out who it is, you’re just not trying. The problem is that these scenes are utterly devoid of any tension or peril because of who ‘the Enemy’ is and any danger Gandalf seems to be in by his hand is just more time-killing because we all know nothing of consequence can happen due to this being a prequel. Raising the question of why they even bothered to include (or at any rate, include so much of) these scenes. There is certainly a point in the last half an hour to forty minutes where there’s just so many simultaneous plotlines being followed that it descends into a Phantom Menace-style mess of trying to juggle all of them with equal screen-time when really there’s only one or two of any real importance or interest. Many of which are simply left hanging mid-scene to be picked up in next year’s sequel. And when the film does reach its final, infuriating shot we’re left with another thoroughly unsatisfying cinematic experience which, like the previous film, simply stops and fails to have an actual ending. It’s almost three hours of people running from things without any real beginning or ending.
For those already enamoured with Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth, this is just more of the same and will likely make for perfectly pleasant viewing. For everyone else there are certainly enjoyable aspects but they don’t remotely justify the overly-indulgent, unashamedly money-grabbing, dragging-out of a story that didn’t need it. For anyone still unsure if it’s worth seeing, watch it at your peril or rather the peril of your patience and your bladder.
(A brief note on the HFR issue. It seems to have been largely fixed from the last film. The ‘fast-forward’ effect is almost entirely absent though some of the faster moving action scenes have a habit of descending into a headache-inducing blur. The only major complaint is that it does its job too well in places and everything looks too real i.e. sets look like sets rather than locations and the whole enterprise ends up looking very televisual on occasion.)
12A (See IFCO for details)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is released on 13th December 2013