On Tuesday night I caught an advance screening of The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug which opens in Australia on Boxing Day. Read on for the definitive Kotaku review! (If you’re wondering what this has to do with video games, just look at any one of the roughly 26,000 fantasy RPGs in existence and quit yer belly-aching.)
Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.
The good news is that The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug will likely satisfy fans of Jackson’s Middle Earth adaptations, even those who were left underwhelmed by The Hobbit: An Unexpected Jorney. The movie has better choreographed action, more breathing space for character development and Legolas being a badass (for people that like that sort of thing.) But before I get into the nitty-gritty of the review, here are my thoughts on the first movie to give you some context about where I stand on Jackson's latest trilogy.
While I didn’t flat out hate the first Hobbit, I did think it tried to build too many thematic bridges to the Lord Of The Rings movies; usually to its detriment. Instead of being a welcome nod to past glories, these references were entirely superfluous and dragged an overlong movie to breaking point. Galadriel and Saruman were completely wasted and Frodo practically derailed the film before it even had a chance to begin. The constant barrage of familiar music cues were also horribly distracting. (Did Howard Shore actually get paid to write that score? It was about 70% re-used material!)
Ironically, the Lord Of The Rings references were one of the worst thing about the first movie. Well, that and the ridiculous video game dwarf physics.
Things don’t bode particularly well at the start of The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug. The film opens in Bree with a very familiar cameo, complete with unexplained carrot (LOTR fans will know what I'm talking about.) My fears weren’t allayed by the next scene either: we’re back inside the Prancing Pony with the same motley assortment of crusty New Zealanders. How much pointless fan service was this film going to cram down my throat?
Thankfully, things begin to settle down soon after and the film finally sheds its predecessor’s skin to become its own beast. It is still unmistakably Jackon’s Middle Earth, but the forced LOTR homages begin to take a back seat. Hurrah!
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug covers roughly one third of the children’s book. Despite critics’ grumblings that there'd be nothing left to tell in the third film, Jackson and co. have managed to dissect the tale fairly evenly. That said, there is a surprising amount of invented filler in The Desolation Of Smaug, including extended Lake-town scenes, an endless succession of orc battles and even an implied interspecies romance.
While purists may well grumble, I found Evangeline Lilly’s elf character to be a welcome addition to this hairy, all-male fellowship. Legolas also slots into proceedings surprisingly smoothly, although the intervening years have visibly marked him – his once youthful noggin is now older and chunkier. This caused me to titter malevolently.
Legolas: "You have my bow!. But not my walking cane. I need that to get around."
By and large I enjoyed Jackson’s additions to the book, even if some of them do have a bit of an ‘Extended DVD’ feel. What I’m less pleased about are the omissions.
That’s right – despite stretching this slip of a tale over three epic movies, Jackson has seen fit to snip portions from his adaptation. This is especially apparent during the party’s dark days in Mirkwood; the whole sequence feels rushed. Hopefully they are saving some of this for the aforementioned extended editions. Fingers crossed, eh?
With that being said, most of the book passages that Jackson does choose to adapt are handled with faithfulness and aplomb. From Bilbo's ascent up Mirkwood's branches to the golden splendor of Smaug's stolen lair, there are visions in this film that feel like they were pulled straight out of your imagination.
At 161 minutes long, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is a bit of a slog to get through; particularly if you suffer from a weak bladder. If you absolutely must pee, make sure you return before the titular dragon’s appearance.
After teasing us for nearly two whole movies, the revelation of Smaug could have been a colossal disappointment. Instead, he is everything a Hobbit fan could hope for. This is truly a marvelously realised creation that is easily up there with Gollum. They even managed to get him to talk for extended sequences without the whole thing feeling silly. Without a doubt, Smaug is the CGI creation of the year. Movie stills do not do him justice.
In closing, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is worth shelling out for in the cinema. The film isn’t perfect — those gravity-defying dwarf physics are back, as is the juvenile humour (Jackson even throws in a dwarf cock joke. No really.) But all in all, this is a worthy continuation of what is just one version of a Tolkien-esque world. Leave your expectations at the door and you wont be disappointed.
[Note: If you’re thinking of taking young children, make sure that they’re tough little mofos – some of the imagery in this film is pretty heavy even for adults; especially those decaying orc leaders. There are also multiple beheadings and giant icky spiders. Parental guidance is definitely advised.]