Bilbo’s back, but he’s still got a long, long (long…) way to go in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Director Peter Jackson continues to drag out a great story to the point of being quite good with Martin Freeman getting nudged ever further into a supporting role, despite having the title role. And more’s the pity because this part fits him like a glove.
Richard Armitage muscled in on the action in the first instalment as Thorin Oakenshield, the kickass dwarf who seeks to reclaim his homeland from a certain Necromancer, but even his boundless passion gets glossed over. For the first hour or so, there’s so much going on it’s difficult for any of the characters to find their footing and Freeman’s boggled expression would seem to reflect that.
Bilbo and his not-so merry band of dwarves continue their journey to the Lonely Mountain where Thorin aims to recover a mystical gem from the evil fire-breathing dragon Smaug (voiced by Freeman’s Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch) and be restored to his throne. But there are plenty of diversions en route and it’s a good thing too, because this middle part of the story threatens to sag like Samwise Gamgee’s gut from lack of tension.
Those distractions are vividly realised with incredibly detailed, downright luscious effects work. That’s the least you expect of Jackson although last year he darned near dazzled us to insanity with the super-bright hyperrealism that was fallout from shooting at 48 frames-per-second. He’s taken the hint and this time muted the colours to restore some of that good old-fashioned storybook aesthetic. (However, it’s also worth noting that Warner Bros have only shown critics the standard version of the film at 24 frames-per-second.)
Jackson may be smarting from the feedback on his technical innovations, but he should take it as a compliment that the high frame-rate – and 3D effect – is superfluous. His depiction of Middle-earth is wonderfully immersive without these gimmicks and the action scenes are just as dynamic. A more ominous mood is building, too, with slobbering Orcs leaping out of the shadows whenever a jolt of adrenaline is required, but the most bone-chilling sequence is Bilbo’s run-in with the giant Spiders of Mirkwood. Arachnophobics should pack some Prozac with their popcorn.
Bilbo’s climactic encounter with Smaug provides another lavish spectacle with Bilbo surfing through golden dunes of treasure to try and escape the beast and there are mind games, too, as Smaug senses the power of ‘The Ring’ about his person. Cumberbatch lends a strangely seductive tone to the dragon as he tries to tease the hobbit out of hiding and Freeman walks the fine line between strength and frailty. At some points he stumbles for comic effect, although there is less humour in this sequel than the first film.
Lost star Evangeline Lilly comes to the franchise bringing a little more heart and courage as the elvish warrior Tauriel with Orlando Bloom at her side, reprising his role as Legolas. It’s a gift for Bloom, not only because it’s the part that made him a star, but because his scenes with Lilly add another dimension to the steely-eyed hero – a softer side, though he’s loathe to show it. He throws wistful glances her way and a few warning ones in the direction of Aidan Turner (of Being Human fame) as the cheeky dwarf Kili who threatens to steal her heart. Legolas sets his jaw just that little bit firmer when Tauriel muses, “He’s quite tall, for a dwarf, don’t you think?”
It’s a rousing adventure, in parts; a film of great moments rather than a great film with a pattern of suspense that trails up and down like a hobbit over a mountain range. Momentum does build towards the end for a much grander finale than the cliff-top skirmish in An Unexpected Journey and certainly, if you’ve stuck with it this far, you’ll want to see how it ends. Almost there…
The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug is in UK cinemas 13 December.