Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review

The second Hobbit film is such a massive improvement that, now we've seen the film it leads into, the first one will either seem much better than we remember or much worse.
I actually really like An Unexpected Journey - it was one of my favourite films of last year - but there's no denying that it doesn't even come close to the heights of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Desolation of Smaug still hasn't reached those magnificent peaks, but it at least feels like it's in the same mountain-range.

Where Journey, with its multiple extended intros, tried to ease us back into Middle Earth gently, Desolation plunges us straight into the world of the original films. I knew where we were before the title card even came up - we know this place, we've been here before, we recognise that guy with the carrot.
By the end of this opening flashback, I was already more immersed and invested in this world than I had been for the whole first movie. Last time felt like visiting an old stomping-ground - this one feels like coming home to family.
It's not just a matter of familiarity - though that's certainly a part of it - it's more about tone. New locations like the dwarf city of Erebor or the elf halls of Mirkwood feel more like Lord of the Rings than anything in Unexpected Journey. Even though we've never seen them before, the flooded slums of Laketown have the same tactile feel as Edoras in The Two Towers. It feels like the same world, in a way that Goblin Town never quite managed.

This new depth stretches to the characters, too. My big complaint last year was that I felt nothing for any of the thirteen dwarves - they were so weakly characterised that I couldn't tell most of them apart. In Desolation, as the group begins to argue and split (much like the Fellowship) each dwarf gets their own distinct character-moments and traits.
Did you know Oin is a medic? Or that Gloin is hoarding money for his family? Neither did I, but we do now!
We even gain some real insight into Thorin, who was just a bare archetype in Journey, as we see him struggle with his legacy. Richard Armitage was always great in the role, but this time he actually gets time to breathe and explore who this dwarf is.

New characters, like Bard the Surprisingly Welsh Bowman and Stephen Fry's slimy Laketown mayor, also feel more fleshed out and real, despite lacking the oh-so-drawn-out introductions of the first film. Evangeline Lilly is excellent as a new character who wasn't even in the books, melodramatic subplot and all, and Orlando Bloom is actually pretty great returning as Legolas. Though he clearly looks older, it's fun to see him as a younger elf, totally prejudiced against the race who would produce his best friend.

But the most important new character, of course, is the dragon. Chances are that's what you came to see - whether you're a full-on Tolkienite or just a casual film fan, this is the big one.

First, a caveat: I hate when films give dragons two legs. I hate it. They look awkward and they walk stupidly and they don't have the regal, powerful quality that dragons are supposed to have. Technically, they're not even dragons; they're wyverns - an entirely different species!
Everything from Harry Potter to Skyrim gets this wrong and it annoys the hell out of me. But it really looked like the Hobbit would be the one to break the cycle. Tolkien said Smaug had four legs, and he has always been represented that way - in fact, we see a drawing of a four-legged Smaug on Thorin's map in the first film, and in the Erebor flashback we actually see his forelegs!
Yet, at some point between the release of the first film and this one, they changed his design. Smaug is a wyvern now, with rediculously long pterodactyl arms that look even more stupid than usual. As he lumbered gracelessly around on his wing-joints I was hugely disappointed and annoyed.

So please understand that it is a big deal when I say, despite all this - despite not strictly even being one - Smaug is the single greatest dragon ever committed to screen.
Smaug, as Bilbo himself says, is stupendous. The effects are stunning (as you'd expect from Weta) and, beyond the insulting lack of legs, the design is pretty much perfect. His face is beautifully expressive, with horns and spikes that bristle and flatten with his mood. It's rare for a dragon to give a performance at all, but we've certainly never seen one this good. At least some credit goes to Benedict Cumberbatch, who not only voiced but also motion-captured the part, and his excellent work clearly shines through Smaug's reptilian features. He's proud and vain and greedy and jealous and just wonderful.
Smaug, like Gollum before him, becomes just another character in this film. You forget that this towering monster isn't real; and that's incredible.

His first scene - a tense standoff with Bilbo atop his mountain of treasure - is the film's standout moment and, were it not for Gravity, would be easily the best sequence of this, or any year. It's perfect - ripped straight from the minds of anyone who's read the book - and if Desolation had ended there, as it easily could, it would have been a perfect movie.

Apparently someone decided that the film had to end with an action scene, though, because there's a whole half-hour after this that feels unnecessary and tacked-on. The dwarves battle Smaug through what looks like the droid factory from Star Wars: Episode II. The scene is messy and chaotic, with nothing properly explained, and it ends in a way that's completely bizarre. It didn't need to be here and it really undercuts the fear and wonder of that treasure-hoard scene. For me, it spoiled the whole film a little, which is a shame because it got everything else so right.

What compounds this is that the rest of the movie's action is excellent. When they're fighting orcs and giant spiders early on it's fast and frantic, but it's always clear and structured. There's some really good stuff with the elves too, with Legolas getting a lot of great action gags.
The centrepiece is an incredible sequence where the dwarves, in barrels, tumble down a raging river. First they're chased by elves, then they're attacked by orcs, and it's always finding ways to keep the action fresh and inventive. Heads are stepped on, axes are passed back and forth, and the least-likely dwarf unexpectedly steals the show. There's so much going on but, despite the manic creativity, we never get lost - the execution is spot on. The whole sequence is pure joy from start to finish.
Chances are that the barrel scene was envisioned as the ending of the first movie, back when they were only planning two. Tight and thrilling - what an ending it would have been!
Unfortunately it now only serves to highlight how the Smaug fight, presumably a rushed addition to tie up this new middle film, feels sloppy and underdeveloped. The last twenty minutes really don't do the preceding film justice.

But that's the only chink in Desolation's armour; the single hole in Smaug's diamond waistcoat. Otherwise, this movie is impeccable.
Peter Jackson has a stronger grip on his tone this time, delivering a much more solid experience and a far more textured world. The action is terrific (with that one exception), the characters are finally compelling, and the dragon - dear sweet gods, that dragon - is everything you ever dreamed.

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