The Pitch: Middle Earth Episode II: Not Yet There, And Back Again Next Year.
The Review: Last year, audiences around the world were treated to the first of a new trilogy of Middle Earth films after a nine year break. Showered with awards, the originals are generally held up as pinnacles of modern film, but An Unexpected Journey arrived last year to a noticeable measure less of acclaim. There were problems, some with the 48 FPS experiment but not least because a film just shy of three hours had been spun slowly and painfully out of five chapters of what was ostensibly a children’s book. While the look and feel of Middle Earth was as magical as ever, nothing felt hugely fresh and the roster of returning characters from the original trilogy – seven in total – and the return to original trilogy settings such as Rivendell, coupled with the relative lack of forward momentum from the plot, made watching significant stretches of part one feel close to a chore, an accusation that could never be levelled at the originals (despite being shorter than any of them). The Riddles In The Dark climax gave the trilogy a sense of propulsion, but the question remained as to whether Peter Jackson could recapture any of that old magic.
So last time we left them, Magneto and John Watson once again set off with Guy Of Gisbourne, Rebus, the one I always confuse with John Hannah, the bald one, the fat one, the young fit one and his brother, the one inexplicably still wandering around withwith an axe in his head and probably about five others that I defy any rational person to distinguish from one another unless their name is an anagram of Jeter Packson had just escaped from the caves with Gollum in and had a ride on some convenient eagles. (I think. It’s been a year, leave me alone.) Where the first instalment creaked along, The Hobbit Part II fairly rattles along at breakneck pace from the start and never lets up. Gandalf decides to disappear off and do his own thing once again, leaving the vertically challenged remainder to tangle with elves, men and a giant, fire breathing dragon.
Where the previous episode felt almost apologetic in its reliance on familiar elements, The Desolation Of Smaug strikes more of a balance. Many of the franchise faces seen last time don’t recur, and the only new / old character to come back is Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, coming across more than ever like a cross between a Vulcan and a ninja. He’s pitched up against Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel in a slightly daft love triangle involving them and the young fit dwarf (Kili, Aidan Turner) and it’s just one of the plot developments that highlights how much this chapter has veered away from Tolkien’s narrative; you could almost refer to this as “inspired by” rather than “based upon”. I’ve no issue with that if it’s providing solid storytelling, and thankfully interspecies crushes are a minor distraction. Desolation is a chance to explore further facets of Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth and the likes of Lake-Town, and the men Bard (Luke Evans) and the master (Stephen Fry) and while the continued pursuit of Azog (Manu Bennett) drives them forward, what the group are encountering is eminently more interesting than the first part of their quest on almost every level, from character to action.
There are minor gripes: Weta’s CGI seems to be going backwards rather than forwards and in particular anything around water has taken a trip through the uncanny valley and is now standing on the other side, hanging its head in shame. Although Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is necessarily sidelined by his excursion to see what lurks in Dol Guldur, there are points in the second act when it also feels as if Bilbo has been forgotten in his own story, and it’s never as clear as it was in Lord Of The Rings exactly who we should be rooting for. There’s also no getting away from the oddness of the title, especially when the only real appearance of the Desolation is the dwarves waving at it from a distance as they wander past. (It almost feels a bit, “Let’s not go to the Desolation. It is a silly place.”) Finally, while there aren’t the painful longueurs of its predecessor, Desolation did make me look at my watch once, oddly in the Smaug section which feels about five minutes too long. But that shouldn’t detract from the genuine magnificence of the beast, ominously voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, or indeed the success of both that sequence and some earlier action sequences such as the barrel ride down river. Jackson continues to take the slender Hobbit tome and recast it in the image of his masterpiece, but that’s more successful second time out, even with a slightly portentous tone that has only flecks of humour. Despite its flaws The Desolation Of Smaug is a much more entertaining ride and while still not quite at the level of the Rings films, come the cliff-hanger ending you’re more likely to be relishing the third part than you would have been three hours earlier.
Why see it at the cinema: If you’ve seen the previous four Tolkien adaptations, you’ll know what to expect, and this is no less epic. Particularly impressive is Lake Town, but the big screen is also the only way to really appreciate the true magnificence of Smaug.
Why see it in 3D: More positives than negatives, in 24 FPS (the way I chose to see it) there’s not a huge brightness issue, even in the murkiness of Mirkwood. Jackson’s good at depth of field and throws in a couple of cheeky in-your-face moments, but still hasn’t quite learned that quick cuts in action editing don’t work in 3D as your eyes don’t have enough time to focus.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence and threat. Again, fans of the trilogy won’t have any nasty surprises here, although arachnophobes who struggled with The Return Of The King might be advised to take a valium before heading out. (Thankfully I lived in Leicester when I saw The Return Of The King at the Odeon there; hopefully the several families who brought very young children will not have been replaced by a new generation there, or indeed anywhere else.)
My cinema experience: A work trip to Exeter saw me taking in the comforts of the Exeter Picturehouse. A beautiful bar in a lovely location complements the venue, and the spacious screen 1 is well set up with a bank of sofas at the back and well spaced rows of seating. I was nervous about booking a seat in the middle of a row, done to minimise ghosting and other odd effects on the 3D, but the ample legroom – even for someone 6′ 3″ like myself – was very welcome and the reclining seats still had plenty of give. The projection and sound were also up to the normal standard I’d expect from the Picturehouse chain. An Apple Tango at just over £2 with my members’ discount helped to keep me hydrated through the lengthy running time, and I look forward to my next work trip there to sample the other screens. Random thanks also to the person who helped me look for my car key after the screening, which it transpires I’d left at the hotel. (Sorry.)
The Score: 8/10