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The second chapter in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy – The Desolation of Smaug is a weary take on J. R. R. Tolkien’s joyful children’s novel, Robbie Collin says.
One year after the Unexpected Journey began, here is the Unexpected Detour. The second leg of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien, is largly stalling for time: two or three genuinely great scenes got tangled up in long beards and longer pit-stops.
There is, in short, an awful lot of The Desolation of Smaug to wade through before we arrive, weary and panting, on Smaug’s rocky porch. But that was always going to be the problem of spinning out a 276-page children’s tale into more than eight hours of blockbuster film, especially when the director is keener to create a prequel trilogy to his own operatic Lord of the Rings movies than do justice to Tolkien’s original playful, uncluttered vision.
The tone is completely Jackson – a sort of thundering darkness, completed with the occasional glint of Discworld mischief. Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, have decapitated bodies twitching on the ground, and a captured dwarf leering at a female elf: “Aren’t you going to search me? I could have anything down my trousers.” Maybe this really is what we want to see from a movie version of The Hobbit, but let’s at least accept that Tolkien would perhaps not have been among them.
But he might have at least been amazed by the way that Middle Earth itself has been rebuilt – and in that angle, Jackson’s movie is unimpeachable. From the outset, while Gandalf (Ian McKellen) sends Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves on their way towards the Lonely Mountain, the world of the movie is rendered in ultra-vivid detail. As the gang gets into troubles with hostile wood-elves and hungry giant spiders, the forest gives way to a huge and glassy lake, on which the town of Esgaroth bobs like a clump of algae, and you can almost sense the air change as Smaug the dragon’s treasure-hoard approaches ever closer.
The gang of orcs that were chasing down Bilbo in the last Hobbit movie are still on the hunt: one of Jackson’s key innovations in adapting Tolkien’s book was to change a journey story into a chase one. It’s no less of a gimmick this time around, but it also grants The Desolation of Smaug’s the best sequence, when Bilbo and the dwarves escape from the wood-elves’ dungeon in empty barrels and sail off via the river. Out of nowhere, the orc hunting party springs from the bushes and the escape turns into a skirmish at 40 miles an hour, like whitewater rafting mixed with a Legend of Zelda video game.
It even starts off beautifully, with a too-rare bit of comic touch from Freeman, whom you can’t help but feel has more to offer the part of Bilbo than the movie is prepared to give him room for. After sending the dwarves’ barrels flowing downstream, he stares at the trapdoor in confusion and attempts to open it by stamping his foot, like Oliver Hardy in Block-Heads treading on the pressure pad that opens his garage door, before it finally gives way.
I wish more of The Desolation of Smaug had ran along with that same energy and lightness of touch. Instead: mopey talks and bloodthirsty fight sequences, most of which are extrapolated from a line or two in Tolkien’s original novel or invented from scratch. The climactic fight with Smaug himself, who is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, finds a very complicated scheme where Bilbo and the dwarves smelt a lot of metal ore to no clear purpose.
There is also an extended cameo for Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, with gags foreshadowing his role in Lord of the Ring, and the revelation of a new, female elf warrior named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), whose ultimate purpose is to become the third leg in an inter-species love triangle. Will the gorgeous elf Tauriel end up with the dishy elf or the hunky dwarf?