Starring : Ian Mckellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace, Evangeline Lilly
Director : Peter Jackson
Release Date : 13 Dec 2013
HAVEN’T we been here before? Almost 10 years ago, Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (TTT) had the thankless task of being the difficult middle part of a Middle-earth trilogy, charged with maintaining the momentum of the hugely successful Fellowship Of The Ring (FOTR), while acting as a bridge between FOTR and Return Of The King (ROTK). To say it managed quite well would be an understatement, as TTT went on to become one of the most successful films of all time, together with its elder and younger brothers, of course.
Thanks to the success of the LOTR trilogy and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (AUJ) however, The Desolation Of Smaug (TDOS) probably has it easier than TTT. In fact, the film manages to up the ante significantly, thus making this a lot more enjoyable than the slightly more incredulous first film.
Of course, it’s a lot easier to make a more exciting film when you’ve got a dragon in it, and director Peter Jackson sure doesn’t pass up the chance to make Smaug one of the most terrifying fire-breathing lizards to grace the silver screen so far.
But more on the dragon later.
First, a quick recap – having barely escaped from the clutches of the orc pack led by Azog the Defiler thanks to the help of the great Eagles, Thorin’s Company of Dwarves (and one hobbit) continues its journey towards the mountain of Erebor, where Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) plans to reclaim his title as King Under The Mountain with the help of designated burglar, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman).
Along the way, they take refuge at the home of Beorn the skinchanger, and must pass through the treacherous forest of Mirkwood, the domain of the Wood-elves of Mirkwood ruled by Elven King Thranduil (Lee Pace) and his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom).
So far, so book. The point the Company enters Mirkwood, however, is where Jackson starts to depart from Tolkien’s original text and add his own flourishes.
In the book, Gandalf (Ian Mckellen) leaves the company at the edge of Mirkwood and is pretty much missing for the rest of the story, until the climactic Battle of The Five Armies.
What he was doing in that period of time was only hinted at in The Hobbit, though his intentions and actions were later expanded upon in The Quest Of Erebor, published in Unfinished Tales.
Fortunately, Jackson makes it easy for those who have not read those books by following Gandalf as he investigates the rise of the mysterious “Necromancer” and discovers the villain’s true identity.
One completely original addition of Jackson’s is the character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a female Silvan Elf who is the Wood-elves’ chief of guards. While not exactly universally accepted by Tolkien fans, her inclusion makes sense from a cinematic point of view – where LOTR had Eowyn, Galadriel and lamentably, Arwen, to render some female presence in the otherwise male-dominated story, The Hobbit is almost completely devoid of any female characters, let alone strong ones.
Tauriel thus lends a calming presence to proceedings here, giving us a respite from the chest-thumping machoness of the dwarven and elven warriors.
That being said, her scenes did give me some unwanted flashbacks of Arwen’s uninspiring dull role in LOTR, but she makes up for that with some killer action sequences of her own.
Legolas is the wild-card here. He was never in the book, but the popularity of the character in LOTR and the fact that he is a Prince of Mirkwood makes him the perfect touchstone for casual fans of the franchise.
It’s been more than 10 years since Orlando Bloom put on that blond wig and wielded that bow, and although he definitely seems more, well, mature (for an Elf, that is) in this film than in the LOTR trilogy, his presence does help lift that somewhat slow middle part of Tolkien’s book.
Jackson also takes the opportunity to build his character somewhat, and giving him a more influential role than in LOTR (look out for a reference to his future best friend Gimli, whose father, Gloin, is among Thorin’s company).
Like in AUJ, Jackson has also fleshed out many of Tolkien’s major scenes significantly, mostly to good effect.
The barrel ride, for instance, has been turned from a covert escape in the night to a rip-roaring rollercoaster action set piece (understandably so, since it would have been pretty boring just watching the dwarves bobbing along the river singing songs and getting seasick).
In the end though, there was no beating the dragon. The Harry Potter series set the dragon bar high in Goblet Of Fire, but compared to Smaug, that Hungarian Horntail would look like a little thrush.
Still, for all of Smaug’s physical magnificence it was the Sherlock and Watson throwdown that really stole the show for me.
The verbal fencing between Martin Freeman’s quick-witted hobbit and Benedict Cumberbatch’s imposing fire-breathing dragon was superbly done, and really set up the dragon as a foe to be reckoned with.
And I have to say, they did a far better job of convincing us that a dragon could talk than say, Dragonheart.
As far as middle Middle-earth movies go, TDOS is a far cry from TTT, which had multiple story threads to follow and had a much, much more epic feel to it.
However, it is less over-the-top than AUJ and more enjoyable in parts, thanks to the presence of Legolas and, of course, Smaug. After all, you really can’t go wrong with dragons.