Smaug Hat: Jackson’s Second Entry Back on Track
Beyond the glaring distraction of the 48fps digital cinematography in Peter Jackson’s first installment of his bloated 2012 Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, there also seemed a definite lack of enthusiasm, exacerbated by the fact that the novel’s slight narrative would now be stretched into about nine hours of cinema. An extended opening dinner sequence cast a fallow pallor with its ill-conceived antics and lilting dirges, followed by endless battle scenes that seemed more a justification for showing off nifty special effects than furthering the journey of Bilbo Baggins. Happily, Jackson seems to return to the point with the middle film of the trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, which is a rousing adventure film that manages to, for the most part, thrill and excite with its extended running time of 160 minutes.
Jackson, along with his band of screenwriters that include Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo Del Toro, are utilizing strands from several Tolkien texts to bolster their epic prequel trilogy. A flashback to a meeting between Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) reveals their alliance to recover the Arkenstone, which will reunite the dwarves with their stolen underground kingdom, now ruled by a dangerous dragon named Smaug, buried fast asleep in hordes of gold. Fast forward to where An Unexpected Journey ends and here we have Thorin, his band of twelve dwarfs, Gandalf, and hobbit Bilbo still headed toward the Lonely Mountain. Seeking shelter from the last known skin-changer (aka a werewolf, played by Mikael Persbrandt) before they enter the diseased Mirkwood forest, they are assailed by vicious spiders, saved by bitchy elves, and terrorized by Orcs on their dramatic journey, before finally landing by a desolate port village outside the Lonely Mountain, helped by a healthy looking bargeman (Luke Evans). Snuck into the floating village, which looks like the Cockney scamp version of Venice, they are welcomed by the drunken leader (Stephen Fry) as the harbingers of a long awaited prophecy. From there, they must face Smaug, and attempt to reclaim the Arkenstone.
First of all, Smaug is fortunately presented in the standard 24 fps, as some of the spectacular visuals would have been crippled by the 48fps presentation that hindered the first film, especially since Jackson still slides into overwrought detail every now and again. Flourishes that seem wholly unnecessary are sometimes distracting, such as a passel of blue butterflies that burst forth from a tree-top, or a pack of jaunty rabbits that rabidly run somewhere off-screen. And attempts at reminding us of Jackson’s omnipotence feel equally out of place, like the director’s carrot chomping cameo in the opening sequence, or, the pugs that seem out of place in Middle Earth.
But whereas the first installment was mind numbingly stretched beyond rational need, Smaug almost plays like a direct apology, a high octane antidote to the slumpy, dumpy machinations of its predecessor. Did you think Shelob was a creepy fright, her arachnid grotesquery packed into 2003’s Return of the King?
Jackson includes a whole nest of her menacing cousins in an early scene here, an action sequence perfectly orchestrated until it crosses over into light shades of cornball with the appearance of Elvin Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel, who, like Liv Tyler, seems showstoppingly earnest with every line of dialogue and valorous endeavor. Snippets of other characters abound, and we get whispers of Cate Blanchett, and a cloying subplot with Orlando Bloom’s love life. And if Martin Freeman’s Bilbo doesn’t seem quite as engaging as Elijah Wood’s Frodo, at least you’ll be sated with a rousingly campy and entertaining turn from Lee Pace as the porcelain faced Thranduil, who rules his elfdom with the pretentious and persnickety 1% entitlement Jackson’s elves seem to embody.
While its continuously forward minded plot unspools at an engaging and rapid pace, the narrative sticks to its tried and true formula. Richard Amritage’s Thorin leads his band of dwarves in and out of various sticky wickets as Bilbo valiantly strives to prove himself, while McKellan’s Gandalf customarily runs off to check out uber dangerous situations on his own, involving a subplot that gears up the preceding trilogy with the rise of the Orcs and, you know, that baddie Saruman.
Diehard fans are sure to lap this installment up, but Jackson finally seems to return to the magic he instilled in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Juxtaposing its main threads as it races towards its cliffhanger ‘to be continued’ frames, the banality of some of these subplots (the Tauriel/Kili thread and Luke Evan’s reveal) are superseded by Jackson’s piece de resistant, the titular Smaug. An extended sequence between the snarly dragon (voiced fantastically by Benedict Cumberpatch) and Bilbo is the exciting highlight of the film. And Jackson seems to have accomplished something extraordinary here with one of the most arresting visual sequences that he’s yet made as Smaug is a ravishing spectacle, and rivals that other cinematic technological achievement from Fritz Lang in his Siegfried portion of Die Nibelungen (1924).
While it’s saddled with being the bridge between two other films, The Desolation of Smaug wholly succeeds where An Unexpected Journey did not in that it makes us look forward to the final installment. If only Jackson had hampered his hubris and made this one solid film instead of an unnecessarily lengthy journey with one too many pit stops on the way.