The second chapter of The Hobbit trilogy brings us back to a much darker Middle Earth since we left it at the edge of the Mirkwood Forest, peacefully gazing at the distant Lonely Mountain. Jackson has indeed packed this second film with breathtaking action and a compelling rhythm which makes the almost 3 hours fly away.
The company splits and Thorin takes the lead in Gandalf’s absence. The Quest for Erebor comes almost to a failure after a series of bad tactics and there is sickness lurking not only in the Orcs-infested lands but also in the young dwarf prince’s heart. Those who deemed “The Lord of the Rings” as over-simplistic in its depiction of good vs evil will certainly find a much different reality here where even the ethereal Elves are temped to greed and revenge and Smaug is a canny enemy unlike any other dragon you have ever seen. “The Hobbit” continues to shine with the lead performances by Armitage, Freeman and McKellen, leaving much anticipation for the epic finale in 2014.
“The Desolation of Smaug” starts with a reminiscent flashback of Thorin Oakenshield coming to Bree and meeting Gandalf. It would seem a chance encounter but when Gandalf is involved there is no such thing and the news about Thorin’s father sparks the desire to reconquer his ancient homeland. Next we see the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf as they are being hunted by Azog and his fleet of wargs. There is another creature though that follows their path, a giant bear, friend or foe is difficult to say until the company learns that the bear is in fact a man, Beorn, a shape-shifter. The dwarves are not friends of his but orcs are even worse so Beorn decides to help the group reach the Elven realm of Mirkwood.
What awaits is a sickened forest, a labyrinth which threatens to lead them astray should they get lost. The evil there has left visible marks and Gandalf makes the difficult decision to leave the company in order to discover who or what has taken hold of the ruined stronghold of Dol Guldur, at the far South of Mirkwood. Once Bilbo and the dwarves enter Mirkwood they are soon led astray by the forest enchantments and fall prey to the monstrous spiders who have spread from Dol Guldur. Bilbo’s intervention saves his companions from certain death although shortly after they are captured by a group of woodland Elves led by their prince Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and their Captain of the Guard, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly).
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” certainly does not fail in bringing back all the magic of Middle Earth but also expands upon our knowledge of it. The new characters we meet are none like we encountered in “The Lord of the Rings”. The incredible designs by Dan Hennah, visualized by the concept artists Alan Lee and John Howe and materialized by the Weta workshop, have once more created some unique and remarkable set pieces which let you immerse in a part of Middle Earth you had not experienced yet. The labyrinth-like palace of Thranduil is one of these; carved in the stone, this subterranean halls have a menacing feel to it. Indeed, the Silvan Elves are not as reassuring as the ones we met in Rivendell. In this sense, Lee Pace’s portrayal of the Elven king brings a rather disquieting figure who fascinates and makes you suspect of his intentions at same time. Esgaroth on the Long Lake is another of the new impressive sets, somehow reminiscent of a 16th-17th century London suburb but built on water, with its Master of Town played by a rather slimy and cowardly Stephen Fry. Although brief, the scene of the encounter with Beorn, the shape-shifter, has its charms with an atmosphere which seems to come directly from some ancient Norse myth.
The film has its light and amusing moments but Jackson has successfully shifted towards darker tones that give the story a more epic scale. In the book, when the company splits and Gandalf travels to Dol Guldur, Tolkien follows the dwarves plot. Obviously we know about all the subplots which happened at the same time as the events narrated in “”The Hobbit thanks to the appendices contained in “The Lord of the Rings” and other Tolkien’s works but whereas Hobbit-book hints at the subplots, Hobbit-film shows you. In fact, some of the best scenes are those of Gandalf reaching Dol Guldur and starting to uncover the truth about the Necromancer that Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) had warned him about; the confrontation between the wizard and the evil spirit will certainly be one of the most iconic. Darkness is gathering and preparing for Sauron’s awakening in “The Lord of the Rings”, but The Hobbit’s most fascinating trait is perhaps the character development of Thorin Oakenshield. We knew from the previous film that there is a hint of madness running in his family and that probably he himself fears that fate more than the dragon awaiting in the Mountain. Like in some great Shakespearean tragedy we see the hero starting to succumb to this weakness in a relentless but unstoppable fall into obsession. Armitage’s performance masterfully embodies the dual nature of this character making it all the more ‘human’ because he’s capable of failure.
Finally, Smaug. The canny dragon voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch does not fail the expectations, instead the film would be worth watching just for these scenes alone. The confrontation between Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Smaug is possibly the best thing you have seen so far. Like for other characters in The Hobbit, Smaug is capable to inspire both dread and awe; an antagonist in its own right which keeps you hooked to the screen.
My only remarks are about the 3D and the 48fps which add detail to the image quality: some action scenes (especially some shots in the barrels sequence and some long shots) appear inexplicably fake compared to the technology which creates Smaug and other creatures. Other than that, “The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug” captures once again all the magic written on paper by J.R.R. Tolkien and translated for the screen by Peter Jackson and his team.
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” will be released in UK cinemas on December 13th.