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The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug Review

With the second installment of The Hobbit out later this week, we threw our reviewer into the dragon's lair.

rating: 4.5

When you're a big fan of something, it can be difficult to be objective. Yes, I'm a fan of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit €“ I liked An Unexpected Journey despite all its flaws. But believe me when I say you're going to want to see The Desolation of Smaug because, all fan excitement aside, it's a bloody good film. Despite a brief flashback at the beginning, Desolation wastes no time in getting straight back into the action. Picking up where Journey left off, Thorin's company is on the run through the mountains, pursued by Azog and his orcs. The pace rarely drops as the dwarves and Bilbo constantly leap out of the frying pan, into the fire and back again, getting ever closer to the dragon-guarded treasure at the end of their quest. With more action, it would be easy to say that Desolation is simply a more entertaining film €“ there are fantastic fighting set pieces, where genuine scares and gasp-out-loud moments are thrown in with a bit of slapstick (at times, there's an almost Chaplin-esque choreography to the way Legolas dispatches orcs). However, aside from ramping up the action, Peter Jackson has created a more rounded and mature film with Desolation.
It is a true ensemble piece, with parallel plot lines allowing individual characters to develop far beyond the scope of Journey. Having thirteen dwarves in one quest was always going to be difficult €“ the danger is that most will become glorified extras, and in Desolation some of the dwarves are still overlooked. But still, whilst the first film dealt mostly with Thorin's character, we now get more from his companions, especially Kili (Aidan Turner). Jackson really expands this character and a wonderful plot strand culminates with Kili delivering one of the most heartfelt speeches of the film, made even more fabulous by the fact he's got is head in a bowl of nuts at the time. Turner really shines in Desolation and will no doubt attract due interest from fans and critics alike. On top of this, Jackson manages to make the new characters feel like real, fleshed out people. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) returns as a prouder, more restrained character than the elf we know. The daddy issues behind this are apparent in Lee Pace's portrayal of Thranduil, King of the Silvan Elves and Legolas' dad. Pace alternates between aloof condescension and trembling, swift rage. The whole thing would feel hammy in any other film, but in the high fantasy setting of Middle Earth it comes across as alien and disconcerting. Meanwhile, Jackson's original character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) more than cements her role in the films €“ Jackson boldly takes her character down a route you really won't see coming and makes the film far more interesting for it. Not canon but definitely worth the deviation, Lily is a compelling screen presence. Similarly, Bard (Luke Evans) comfortably slots into the Aragorn-shaped hole in The Hobbit, providing us with rugged good looks and ancestral hang-ups galore. And what about the dragon? When Bilbo finally creeps into Smaug's lair, Jackson teases us with a slow unveiling of the monster and it's worth the wait. Smaug is vast and Weta have done their job masterfully in creating something so big yet so organic. Cumberbatch's computer-enhanced voice lends a chest-rattling depth to the character so that the overall result is both recognisably human and totally other. It is an awe-inspiring creation.
However, not everything is perfect €“ far from it. Following on from the bouncing-off-walls in the goblin caverns in Journey, the laws of physics only seem to apply sporadically to our protagonists. The barrel sequences are fun but the action becomes cartoonish when gravity is held in so little regard. Even with elvish light-footedness, it's a bit far-fetched. There's a couple of off-touches to the feel of the film too €“ Legolas' contact lenses are a weird tinge of bright blue, and only serve to distract from Bloom's acting. Similarly, Ed Sheeran's end-credits song just doesn't fit with the film, and just seems like a tip-of-the-hat to celebrity €“ give me Howard Shore any day. Meanwhile, the climactic showdown comes across as a bit strained €“ dwarfish Macgyver-ing becomes hard to believe whilst being chased by a dragon, although the final golden moment is spectacular. It's in the fantastical moments that Desolation really excels. A cascade of countless coins slowly shifting to reveal a gigantic eye; blue butterflies erupt from a sea of red-gold leaves; shadow incarnate ebbs and flows through the ruins of Dol Guldur. Jackson knows how create a spectacle and his world-building is superb. We are given unbelievably intricate artistry in the elegant architecture of the Halls of the Woodland Realms €“ pillars and stairs seem to grow organically from the rocks themselves to create an otherworldly kingdom. Meanwhile, the eye for detail in the creation of Laketown is mind-blowing €“ from a pair of pug dogs sniffing along a quay to the icy water, the whole location feels utterly authentic. Throughout Desolation, Jackson underpins action and entertainment with bold themes. With a deftness lacking in Lord of the Rings, he explores ideas of addiction, greed, abuse of power, loyalty and sacrifice, and all without coming across as preachy. Far more than any other film he has made, The Desolation of Smaug is a grown-up fantasy for adults, where Jackson invites us to reflect on a world stranger and more heroic than our own.
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A recent Film & English graduate living in London. Loves making films, cupcakes and taking long walks on the beach. Also, not a bad writer... Follow me on twitter: @KatieBlagden