(directed by Peter Jackson, 2013)
With Christmas hovering on the horizon, it’s once again time for a trip into Middle Earth and, since I wrote in some detail about the first instalment of The Hobbit, I don’t think I need to do too much scene-setting here. We rejoin Bilbo, Thorin and their companions exactly where we left them: on the far side of the Misty Mountains, finally within sight of the Lonely Mountain, with a warg pack on their trail. A breathless cross-country chase takes them to temporary shelter in the cottage of the skinchanger Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) and then into the forest of Mirkwood, to the realm of the elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace, on imperious form). Beyond Mirkwood lies Laketown, the final settlement before the Lonely Mountain; and then there is only the mountain itself to challenge them, as they seek the hidden door that will lead them into Smaug’s domain.
This second film has many of the strengths and weaknesses of the first. Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth continues to be bewitching: the more we see of this world, the more breathtaking it becomes. Thranduil’s sylvan kingdom in Mirkwood is a less ethereal version of Galadriel’s Lothlorien, where the elegance of the airy architecture is underlaid with the harsh realities of a strong rule: there were no dungeons in Lothlorien, as I recall. In fact Mirkwood offers a slightly different perspective on the elves in general, making them more flawed, more human: this is a place where elven jailers conveniently drink themselves into a stupor, for example.
We also get more of a sense of the relationships between the elven characters, as we witness Thranduil’s interaction with his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Legolas’s exchanges of significant glances with new addition Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). In some ways this felt a little strange, but on the other hand I suppose elves can’t just slowly drift around in elegant robes, singing all the time.
Another location I found fascinating was Laketown – it’s so long since I read the book that I’d completely forgotten it existed. Jackson gives it a blended Russian-Norwegian flavour, with sharply pitched roofs, spiked helmets and costumes which – in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon feel of human communities in Rohan and Gondor – look almost 17th-century. In some ways those artistic choices made Laketown feel very much out-of-place in Tolkien’s carefully-crafted world of halls and sagas; but it also gave it a very individual feel. I could actually have watched an entire film about the society and power struggles in Laketown itself, and wanted to find out a bit more about Bard (Luke Evans). Having been hyped quite a lot in advance of the film, he didn’t have anywhere near as much screen-time as I’d been expecting. Despite the appeal of Laketown in general, I did feel that Stephen Fry, as the Master, was a bit distracting. That’s not to say he wasn’t good in the role, but he’s too recognisable for something like this. Filmmakers must learn that Stephen Fry in anything, even under layers of prosthetics, is still Stephen Fry.
An interesting technical note: my local cinema chose not to show the film in the HFR format that so many people found unsettling last year. The result is a more traditional cinematic experience with that strangely comforting grittiness to the picture.
This second Hobbit film, even more than the first, moves away from the epic spirit of The Lord of the Rings. It still looks epic, of course, but it’s a very different beast. In almost every scene there are lightly humorous touches, and Jackson’s decision to stretch the source material between three films means that he has to fill in a lot of padding – which takes the form of enjoyable chases, escapes or action sequences that have as much in common with Indiana Jones as they do with Tolkien. Some of the sequences refer back to The Lord of the Rings, which is quite fun – the cat-and-mouse hunt with Smaug in the Lonely Mountain has echoes of the Bridge of Khazad Dum, while the elves’ fighting style owes a lot to Legolas’s showy heroics at Helm’s Deep.
But in some ways The Hobbit risks becoming a parody of its own fantasy world. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very pleased to see Legolas again, and in fact Orlando Bloom’s acting has improved – but the fact that Jackson’s brought him back suggests that this is a film driven less by its own story and more by a kind of self-indulgent revelling. I admit to being precisely the kind of viewer who appreciates a spot of self-indulgent revelling, but where do we draw the line? This brings me, inevitably, to Tauriel. With my enthusiasm for strong female characters I was all for the addition of a female elven warrior, but the problem is that she isn’t an elven warrior who happens to be female, but a female who happens to be an elven warrior. Trust me: that’s a significant distinction. Her story arc was dominated by a completely unnecessary love triangle, which felt like a rather awkward encumbrance. It was rather disappointing: give me Aragorn and Arwen any day.
Anyway, enough of that. There is one undeniably splendid thing about this film, and that’s the big boy himself… Smaug. What a treat. This is the first time we really get to see him and my, is he magnificent. Slithering over piles of gold, or erupting from their midst, sinuously winding himself around pillars, this is an extremely impressive piece of CGI. Choosing Benedict Cumberbatch for the voice and motion-captured expressions was a stroke of genius: Smaug sounds both ferociously intelligent and extremely dangerous. (Plus, I was rather happy to see Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman matching wits, because it offered an aperitivo for the third series of Sherlock.) But perhaps it’s telling that the most memorable elements of both Hobbit films have been Bilbo’s interaction with CGI characters – Gollum in An Unexpected Journey and Smaug now. This testifies to the continued success of Martin Freeman’s acting, of course. He’s delightfully fresh, giving an impression of spontaneity amid the self-consciously epic delivery of the other characters, and I find him immensely watchable.
If you’ve seen all the other films, you – like me – will be unable to resist this; and, even if there are parts that don’t quite work, you will probably enjoy it. It’s not as powerful and successful as The Lord of the Rings, but it’s still an amusing few hours. So much happens that it isn’t always easy to follow what’s going on, but the production values are second-to-none. As Bilbo and the dwarves go cascading down the rapids in their barrels, in a frantic effort to outpace their orc pursuers, as elven arrows whizz around the screen, you will probably find yourself enjoying the spectacle too much to worry overly about the plot. Let’s just hope, though, that the plot side of things tightens up a little in the final instalment, so we can look forward to fabulous scenery, great characters and a really satisfying conclusion to the story. Fingers crossed.