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Review – The Hobbit II: The Desolation of Smaug (12a) [2013]

The Hobbit II - title banner

Star Rating: 3/5

Director:

  • Peter Jackson – Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Lovely Bones, The Hobbit IIII, The Adventures of Tintin II

Cast:

  • Martin Freeman – The OfficeThe World’s End, Sherlock, Fargo
  • Ian McKellen – Apt PupilLord of the Rings TrilogyX-Men I-IIIX-Men: Days of Future Past
  • Cate Blanchett – Notes On A ScandalBlue Jasmine, Cinderella
  • Richard Armitage – Captain America: The First AvengerBlack Sky, Into The Storm
  • Aiden Turner – Alarm, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
  • Ken Scott – Casanova, Charlie Wilson’s War, One Day
  • Graham McTavish – Rambo, 24: Day 8, Columbiana
  • Benedict Cumberbatch – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Star Trek II: Into Darkness, The Fifth Estate, 12 Years A Slave
  • Orlando Bloom – The Lord of the Rings I-III, The Kingdom of Heaven, The Good Doctor, Zulu
  • Lee Pace – The Fall, Twilight IV: Breaking Dawn: Part II, Lincoln, Untitled Lance Armstrong Biopic
  • Evangeline Lilly – Lost, The Hurt Locker, Real Steel
  • Luke Evans – Clash of the Titans, Immortals, The Raven, Dracula Untold
  • Stephen Fry – V For Vendetta, Alice In Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes II: A Game of Shadows, Once Upon A Time In The Kitchen

Music Composer:

  • Howard Shore – Lord of the Rings TrilogyHugo, A Dangerous MethodThe Hobbit IIII

In December 2012, Peter Jackson started audiences on another nine-hour trilogy into Middle Earth, nine years after the last one ended. But anyone expecting The Hobbit Trilogy to be of the same quality as The Lord of the Rings Trilogy should have looked at the size of their respective source materials. With The Hobbit book having less than a third of the pages of The Lord of the Rings, it was unsurprising that The Hobbit I: An Expected Journey was overly-stretched, self-indulgent and stuffed with scenes that added little to the adventure. Well (predictably), The Hobbit II: The Desolation of Smaug suffers from the same syndrome, but it is a vast improvement on its predecessor.

Thorin (Richard Armitage), Balin (Ken Scott) and Dwalin (Graham McTavish, furthest left) looking for a the secret entrance.

Thorin (Richard Armitage), Balin (Ken Scott) and Dwalin (Graham McTavish, furthest left) looking for a the secret entrance.

In The Hobbit I, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) left the Shire to help Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the dwarves of Erebor reclaim their gold and homeland from Smaug the Dragon. By the end of An Unexpected Journey, after a long and dull trek (that mimicked the journey of the fellowship in The Fellowship of the Ring), some chases, and some fights with goblins and orcs, the eagles rescued Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves, and flew them to within sight of the Lonely Mountain and the ruins of Erebor.

Now, it is up to our new fellowship to make their way to the Lonely Mountain and retrieve the Arkenstone, the legitimising gem for the dwarf king. Yet, in order to regain this precious pearl, someone will have to be brave enough to snatch it from under the clasp of a dragon…

The plot for The Desolation of Smaug is straightforward and fun. The storyline also runs at a much faster pace than that of An Unexpected Journey, which is a good thing (since last time out it took 43 minutes just for Bilbo to leave the Shire).

Another noteworthy matter is that Peter Jackson has somewhat rectified two of the faults of the last film by adding in a major (albeit made up) female character (Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly); and by giving some personality to Balin, Dwalin and Kili so that they can differentiate themselves from Thorin ‘wannabe Aragorn’ Oakenshield and the other nine (synonymous) dwarves.

Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the uniquely badass elf, showing the orcs what she's made of.

Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the uniquely badass elf, showing the orcs what she’s made of.

Moreover, the dragon has been done superbly well. The special effects, combined with Benedict Cumberbatch’s rich, rumbling voice make the scenes with Smaug some of the most creative dragon scenes ever seen in a movie. Undoubtedly, the arrival of Smaug is one of the best features of The Desolation of Smaug and makes the film worthwhile.

However, in a similar vein to An Unexpected Journey, at 161 minutes The Desolation of Smaug is long. (Couldn’t the eagles have flown the protagonists to the Lonely Mountain and spared us two hours?). Worse, The Hobbit II is bloated with the disapplication of the laws of physics, an overuse of CGI, too many fight scenes, some (Logger’s Leap-style) fairground rides, irrelevant sub-plots from old and new characters, and an unnecessary love triangle (stolen from that wreckage of a pentology known as Twilight) to cap it all. All of these add nothing to the story and should have been edited out.

Yes, the water rides might be as entertaining as the love triangle is contrived and pointless. But there is something troubling about the continued mowing down of the orcs by the protagonists. Why couldn’t Peter Jackson have had our heroes at least try to negotiate peace with the orcs? Is it because the orcs look deformed that they can’t be negotiated with?

One may argue that as no negotiations take place in the source material, it cannot happen in the films. But, first, we are in 2014 (not the 1930s when the book was published, or the 1960s when the book became a sensation, or even 2001 when the first of The Lord of the Rings films came out). And in 2014 peace negotiations with peoples different to our own must be given every chance to succeed. Second, Jackson has changed so much from the book that merely to state the excuse of ‘not in the source material’ is neither convincing nor valid.

Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), usurper and desolator of Erebor, awakening from his slumber to reveal his awe-inspiring (and frightening) size.

Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), usurper and desolator of Erebor, awakening from his slumber to reveal his awe-inspiring (and frightening) size.

Perhaps, if Bilbo had posed the above-mentioned questions, it would have enriched the story and given the film a deeper moral dimension. More to the point, it would have been in character with Martin Freeman’s excellent portrayal of Bilbo and made The Desolation of Smaug a more gratifying and thought-provoking film.

Over-all, The Hobbit II: The Desolation of Smaug is a step up from An Unexpected JourneyThe Desolation of Smaug moves at a decent pace; has some, if too many, enjoyable and imaginative action scenes; and a fantastic looking and aptly sounding dragon to make for an entertaining spectacle. Nevertheless, there is no getting away from The Hobbit II’s swollen running time. The Desolation of Smaug, like An Unexpected Journey before it, is burdened by the numerous, purposeless, Jackson-invented side-stories that have ruined all that is good about the first two instalments of The Hobbit Trilogy, and that are also surreptitiously sullying The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

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Review – The Hobbit I: An Unexpected Journey HFR 3D (12a) [2012]

The Hobbit - title banner

Star Rating: 2.5/5

Director:

  • Peter Jackson – Brain Dead, Lord of the Rings Trilogy, King Kong, The Hobbit II & III

Cast:

  • Martin Freeman – The Office, Love, Actually, Svengali
  • Ian McKellen – Apt Pupil, Lord of the Rings Trilogy, X-Men I-III, X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • Cate Blanchett – Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Blue Jasmine
  • Barry Humphries – The Dame Edna Treatment, Finding Nemo, Justin & The Knights of Valour
  • Hugo Weaving – The Matrix Trilogy, Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Captain America: The First AvengerTransformers I-III
  • Christopher Lee – Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Season of the Witch, The Girl From Nagasaki
  • Richard Armitage – Spooks, Captain America: The First Avenger, Black Sky
  • Ian Holm – Lord of the Rings I & III, Lord of War, Ratatouille
  • Elijah Wood – Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Green Street, Open Windows
  • Andy Serkis – Lord of the Rings Trilogy, King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Music Composer:

  • Howard Shore – Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Hugo, The Hobbit II & III

<<guest review by KJF>>

Eleven years after the first of Peter Jackson’s magnificent two Lord of the Rings-related trilogies hit our screens, its prequel has finally arrived. What has alarmed many viewers even before getting into auditoriums to see The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey is that it is three hours long, and only the first of a proposed nine-hour trilogy covering the events of JRR Tolkien’s beloved, but not particularly lengthy children’s book, first published in 1937. The result is that An Unexpected Journey is a lengthened, over-indulgent spectacle that will be welcomed by Middle Earth addicts, but might alienate the average cinemagoer.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) bewildered as the dwarves invade his home unexpectedly and immediately make themselves at home by gobbling down his food and liquer.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) bewildered as the dwarves invade his home unexpectedly and immediately make themselves at home by gobbling down his food and liquor.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is the home-loving hobbit of the title, living in a cozy hole in the ground in the Shire, a rural idyll in the western part of Tolkien’s vast imaginary world. Bilbo’s part of a community of small beings with hairy feet who love the good life, preferring nothing better than eating, drinking, smoking and sleeping.

Bilbo’s personal tranquility is interrupted by the arrival of the wizard, Gandalf ‘the Grey’ (Ian McKellen), followed hot on his heels by a gang of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). The dwarves are desperate to recover their homeland, the kingdom of Erebor, from the clutches of the evil dragon, Smaug, who rather inconsiderately destroyed it all, and who now spends his days drenched in all its treasure. So Bilbo is recruited into the party – as a ‘burglar’ of all things – and the adventure begins.

The early part of the film manages, quite successfully, to recreate the gentle humour of the book. Freeman, so good at playing the everyman (as in TV’s The Office), is an inspired choice as Bilbo, looking on in wondrous, mostly wordless amazement as Gandalf and the dwarves take over his home; the latter gang eating him out of house and hole. But then as events progress (at the aggravating pace of a snail), spectacle and action take over and the early charm is lost.

Yet, the spectacle is truly spectacular! The detailed recreation of Smaug’s attack on Erebor is a wonder to behold, filling the screen with the terrifying destruction he reaps, while only tantalisingly giving us a glimmer of what the monster looks like. There’s much else to goggle at with all the scrapes Bilbo and the party get into: dodging trolls, wargs and orcs overground; as well as goblins underground in the depths of the MistyMountains.

Jackson has, of course, been here before and it’s to be expected that the mise-en-scene of Middle Earth has been beautifully and lavishly re-created. Jackson again fully utilises the picturesque New Zealand landscapes to his advantage.

Bilbo attending a secret council in Rivendell, the home of the elves, along with Thorin (Richard Armitage), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and another dwarf.

Bilbo attending a secret council in Rivendell, the home of the elves, along with Thorin (Richard Armitage), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and another dwarf.

Nevertheless, unlike with Lord of the Rings, Jackson has shot The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at 48-frames-per-second, known as the Higher Frame Rate (HFR), rather than the standard 24-frames-per-second. Although the HFR was meant to make everything appear more realistic, it is more likely to bring about the peculiar feeling of watching a TV programme with a substantially greater budget. Actors might appear very clearly in the foreground, but the computer-generated backgrounds come across as just that: computer-generated! This sadly lessens the ‘reality’ that Jackson was aiming for, and the 3D element doesn’t add much either (other than a few quid onto the ticket price).

It’s a shame that with all the technical innovations Jackson hasn’t focused more on ramping up his creative approach. There are some nice sops to Lord of the Rings fans, particularly having the elder Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) appear at the beginning. After a while though, a sense of déjà-vu creeps in, whether it is in the use of musical riffs from the original trilogy, or the overlong focus on the re-introduction of Gollum (Andy Serkis).

What further acts as a ballast for the film’s 169-minute running time are events and characters not in the original narrative, but picked out from other of Tolkien’s writings. One would have thought that if Jackson had wanted to be so cavalier with the original source material, he would have done something that was truly necessary, such as putting in some more prominent female characters to spice up the narrative. Yet, aside from Cate Blanchett’s brief reprisal as a more-youthful Galadriel, other women in the movie are virtually non-existent. Indeed, Jackson has seemingly forgotten to even put them in the background for the orcs and goblins (which naturally prompts some interesting questions on procreativity).

Gollum (Andy Serkis), enhanced thanks to modern technology, playing a game of riddles with Bilbo.

Gollum (Andy Serkis), enhanced thanks to modern technology, playing a game of riddles with Bilbo.

In all of this, it is also hard to pick out distinctive characters throughout the film. Martin Freeman is superb as Bilbo, Ian McKellen once again gives a magisterial performance as Gandalf, and Barry Humphries is great as the voice of the Goblin King. Yet, aside from grumpy Thorin ‘wannabe-Aragorn’ Oakenshield, it’s hard to tell one dwarf from another, since they all seem as one-dimensional, hairy and gruff as the next. Considering that The Hobbit is about the dwarves trying to reclaim their homeland, this is not sufficient.

Thus, Part I of The Hobbit has started us on another unexpected journey through Middle Earth. Already though, after almost three hours (and with another six to go), it feels like we are on a long and bloated trek that possibly has the power to undo all that was good about Lord of the Rings.

KJF