The Middle Earth adventures of ‘Bilbo’ and The Dwarves continue in this next installment of The Hobbit Trilogy. After an unexpected (and interesting) flashback for an ‘Opening Scene’ (keep your eyes peeled for an amusing and familiar ‘wink wink’ cameo from director Peter Jackson), the action picks up right where ‘An Unexpected Journey’ left off, with ‘Bilbo’ and Co. on their way to The Lonely Mountain with a pack of vengeful orcs in hot pursuit. Never mind the fact that when we last saw this crew they had just been plopped down with dozens of miles between them and their enemies by the magnificent giant Eagles.
Those expecting ‘Bilbo’ (Martin Freeman) to still be the fussy priss that he started off as will immediately note that the adventures up to this point have had a remarkable effect on the once-sheltered denizen of The Shire. There is now something very capable about ‘Bilbo’, as he has taken to his ‘Burglar’ title with an enthusiastic vengeance; aided by the nefarious aura of The Ring that he appropriated from ‘Gollum’ in the goblin tunnels…and is now keeping as a secret from his new friends, including an inquisitive ‘Gandalf’ (Ian McKellen).
After an exciting and eerie fight with a horde of monstrous spiders in the choking thickness of Mirkwood, the group find themselves as ‘guests’ in the prison cells of the Elves, captured by a hunting party led by everyone’s favorite ‘pretty boy’ Elf, ‘Legolas’ (Orlando Bloom). Fighting at ‘Legolas’ side is a new addition to the Tolkien universe, the female Captain of The Guard ‘Tauriel’, played capably by the sexy Evangeline Lily (‘Lost’).
Once again, ‘Bilbo’ must step (sneak?) up to save the capture-prone group, getting them on to the next perilous leg of their mighty quest.
Much of ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ feels episodic, almost to a fault, but luckily most, and I stress MOST, of the ‘episodes’ are very entertaining and well-executed. One such sequence is the famous wine barrel escape from the Elvish prison; a sequence that captured my imagination when I read ‘The Hobbit’ as a kid. This scene is surprisingly nifty, at times reminding me of the awesome ‘one shot’ motorbike chase from ‘The Adventures of Tin Tin: The Secret of The Unicorn’ (2011). There’s loads of clever, fast-paced elements scattered throughout the sequence, with well-timed pauses for humor in among the violent arrow strikes and sword swings. The only part of this action set piece that fell short was a handful of POV-in-the-water shots that HAD to have been filmed with a lesser quality HD video camera, as opposed to ‘film’ like the rest of the movie. These quick snippets stood out so jarringly that they momentarily pulled me out of the scene, but then two orcs would be shish kabob’d by one arrow to the heads, or there would be a gnarly decapitation…and I’d be pulled right back in.
Which reminds me: the action and violence in this one was ‘stepped up’ noticeably. Not so much in a gory,’spraying blood’ kinda way, but in that what is being done is clever, frantic and lethal. Beheadings, arrows through craniums, bodies pinned to inanimate objects by flying, sharpened implements, punches, slices and bludgeonings abound. ‘Bilbo’ has become quite adept at using his orc-reactive short sword (which earns its name ‘Sting’ here). There is no longer hesitation when it comes to driving the blade into his enemies throats and/or skulls, be they huge spiders or large orcs that resemble band members from GWAR.
One of the common ‘bitches’ about this trilogy is the fact that Peter Jackson took a 300 or so page book, and expanded it into the ‘epic’ that it’s becoming. Which requires padding. Me being ‘Me’, I’m ‘on the fence’ about the inclusion of this ‘extra’ material in order for the studio to capitalize on 3 films, instead of the originally proposed 2. The 2nd Act especially, feels the ‘bloat’.
There is an entire sub-plot focusing on a wounded ‘Kili’ (Aidan Turner), the handsome archer dwarf, and his out-of-the-blue attempted wooing of ‘Tauriel’. A large chunk of time is spent as he feverishly mutters sweet ‘nothings’ to her while she treats his festering wound. There’s another questionable sub-plot focusing on ‘Gandalf’ and ‘Radagast’ as they dig for answers about the blossoming threat of ‘Sauron’. This is intercut with one of the best scenes in the flick, ‘Bilbo’s covert infiltration into the mountain and his unnerving encounter with the nasty and calculating dragon ‘Smaug’, voiced and motion-captured by Benedict Cumberbatch (‘Sherlock’), in among the tremendous dunes of gold and jewels that the dragon calls home. Cumberbatch’s voice is pitch-perfect for the cruel beast as he hisses and rumbles his rhetoric at the stricken hobbit. This interplay between the characters is great, much like the ‘game of riddles’ scene from the first flick, and is likely to go down as a classic ‘tete a tete’.
The design of ‘Smaug’, so far effectively kept under wraps, is inspired. Sure, EVERYONE ‘knows’ what a dragon looks like…and ‘Smaug’ looks like a dragon, but in this instance, all it takes is a couple small but noticeable feature changes and he becomes somewhat unique. I found the creepy upturned ‘sneer’ of his face a slick choice, backed by a sharp, expressive frill that famed his mammoth reptilian head, set him apart from numerous other cinematic incarnations. As the design goes, my ‘kneejerkreaction’ mentally conjured up the evil, virgin-devouring creature from ‘Dragonslayer’ (1982), still one of the most terrifyingly cool portrayals of one of these monsters to ever grace a movie screen. As with MOST of the effects and visuals on display, ‘Smaug’ clearly shows the effort that went into his creation.
‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ is a good sequel to a good fantasy film. It’s well done and, for the most part, excitingly told. It DOES suffer from bloat and many of these scenes and story lines are a little transparent, despite being superficially engrossing. I saw it in basic 3D (missed out on trying the High Frame Rate presentation), and the effect mostly worked here…especially when bugs where buzzing around onscreen. The cast continues to ‘bring it’, even though most of the dwarves are still somewhat ‘fleshless’ by the end.
Oh right, The End. Ok, this is worth mentioning. Even though you expect the ambiguous ‘open’ ending in Part 2 of a trilogy, this one is a motherfucker. It is a near-perfect example of how a pulse-pounding cliffhanger should be executed…as friggin maddening as it is. It made me groan and curse…and want moreMoreMORE!!!…and for that, I say “Hat’s off to you, Mr. Peter Jackson sir. I eagerly await your final installment.”