By Simon Miraudo
December 19, 2013
We’re now 343 minutes deep into the saga of The Hobbit, and I’m still having trouble keeping the names of Bilbo Baggins’ thirteen (thirteen!) dwarvish companions straight in my head. There’s Two Beards, of course, the hunky one, James Nesbitt, and, erm, the rest. I’m not the biggest fan of Peter Jackson’s previous Lord of the Rings trilogy, but at least I can recite its most important characters. Here? Nope. IMDB claims three of the dwarves are called Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur. None of those ring a bell. Wasn’t one of them ‘Bopho’?
The Desolation of Smaug is the second part of this unnecessarily elongated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s text, reluctantly directed by Jackson (who took over from poor, frustrated Guillermo del Toro after years of delays) and attended even more reluctantly by me. I will say this sequel is certainly more compelling than its predecessor, An Unexpected Dinner Party oh… Yep, The Dwarves are Singing Again. It also has a slightly keener sense of humour, with the appealing Martin Freeman – as Bilbo – allowed to deploy his uncertain, nervous sideways glances to hilarious effect.
For the most part though, it’s a far-from-scintillating affair, with few treats for newcomers to the franchise, and plenty of impenetrable, indecipherable mythology to sate fans. There’s a lot of talk about so and so being the king of this, and so and so being the king of that, and Borin being the son of Bráin and Arin being the son of Hráin. (Those may not be actual names.) The script is credited to Jackson, del Toro, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. I don’t know what they did or didn’t do to Tolkien’s source novel; all I know is that it doesn’t work. The dialogue is too declarative; the plotting is too perfunctory; the barrage of names is bewildering. There’s a Beorn and a Bain? Huh? Slow down! (I’m, obviously, not suggesting they rechristen everyone as ‘Bill’ and ‘Jane’ – if silly names alone bugged me, I’d have been driven mad by The Hunger Games. Simply trying to point out how blindly concerned the picture is with cramming as much of Tolkien’s universe into a medium that may not suit it. At some point, this has to feel like a movie. Looking expensive and being grand isn’t enough.)
There’s barely a trickle of narrative water powering this three-feature turbine, and it involves a band of dwarves led by…. I want to say Thorin? (The one played by the stern Richard Armitage.) Inspired by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) to reclaim his stolen throne and stem the rising evil in Middle Earth, he leads his band of warriors to the Lonely Mountain, bringing Bilbo along as burglar. When push comes to shove, Bilbo – often busy secretly fiddling with that nifty ring he stole from Gollum in film number one – will have to nab from Smaug the precious Arkenstone gem. Smaug, by the way, is the greedy, chatty dragon – voiced by the sonorous Benedict Cumberbatch – who has taken over the Mountain and lords over its many riches. Bilbo and friends spent the first movie walking to him, and spend the second movie facing off against him. The third one is titled There and Back Again, so, we have that to look forward to.
The Desolation of Smaug has a healthy heaping of action set pieces, that’s for sure. Just no peril. Each character is able to murder about 1000 enemies without even stopping to catch a breath, and, when on the run, they practically fall into safety with unreal precision. The only people who ever seem to be in danger are the over-worked animators tirelessly rendering each and every CGI-laden sequence. I half expected Jackson to cut away to an artist frantically tinkering at his desk and being suddenly struck with a heart attack, a’la Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Evangeline Lilly is a fine addition to the cast as Tauriel, an elf who falls for one of the dwarves, much to the chagrin of fan favourite Legolas (Orlando Bloom, back for more, despite Legolas not being in the Hobbit book). Luke Evans is also a welcome presence as the deeply-burdened smuggler Bard. Less welcome is Lee Pace as a scene-swallowing elf king. Now that Jackson is favouring computer-generated backdrops and enemies over costumed creatures and practical effects, it must be difficult for actors to maintain the reality of their green-screened scenes. Especially when they’re depicting someone called ‘Thranduil’.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug arrives in Australian cinemas December 26, 2013.