This second Hobbit movie was for me not just a pleasure, but a revelation. For the first time, I "got" the JRR Tolkien/Peter Jackson experience. I tuned into the frequency. I tasted the fusion cuisine. I heard the eccentric but weirdly rousing choral harmonies. And this is despite – or more probably because of – never having been a Tolkien fan and being agnostic about the myth-making and, indeed, the prose quality. I never had any dogmatic sense of how the original should be represented or any loyalty to childhood fandom, and in fact I came to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 with some unbelief, though as the Rings series progressed I was forced – with some churlish ill-grace – to admire those movies’ mighty ambition and scope. With the Hobbit series, the penny is properly dropping: it’s not about Tolkien, it’s Tolkien-plus-Jackson, of course. It’s morphed into something new.
This movie is tremendously enjoyable, and considering how exotic it is, The Desolation of Smaug is weirdly unassuming. It rattles along, never drags, and is always terrifically likable: open, genial and good-natured. The legend is revealing itself to be a rich and potent source of entertainment. Perhaps the point is, as Graham Greene once said about God, you need a sense of humour to believe.
There’s a small caveat. Before I sat down to it, I earnestly pondered the words in my press handout restating the importance of Jackson’s technological innovation, HFR or high frame rate, 48 frames per second rather than the conventional 24. The first Hobbit movie in HFR had looked worryingly like daytime television, but I noted that this second film looked much better and wondered if I was just getting used to it. Actually, the projection I saw was in the usual 24 frames a second – as will be 80% of the screenings around the country. Perhaps HFR is one of those innovations that might have to be discreetly de-innovated.
At any rate, The Desolation of Smaug gets off to a mighty gallop. It’s a cheerfully exhilarating adventure tale, a supercharged Saturday morning picture. Jackson shows that he is an expert in big-league popular moviemaking to rival Lucas and Spielberg. His Smaug, with its fight scenes, chase spectaculars, creepy creatures and secret stone doors that open with a grinding noise, is something to set alongside the Indiana Jones films.
Smaug is, of course, the terrible dragon, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who has usurped the Lonely Mountain and the dwarf kingdom of Erebor with all its gold, and whom the dwarves and Bilbo Baggins are on a mission to unseat. The "desolation" is the wasteland he has imposed on the country thereabouts, rather than any depression the dragon may be feeling. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is the alpha dwarf, grimly intent on his destiny: to reclaim his people’s heritage and homeland. Martin Freeman is Bilbo, and Freeman’s laidback, more naturalistic line readings make a pleasing and interesting contrast to the more contoured saga-speak that comes out of everyone else’s mouth, whether they are speaking English or Elvish or the guttural Orcish.
A series of fantasy episodes, in the Jackson-Tolkien-rococo style, brings us closer and closer to the mountain, and the most uproarious sequence comes when Bilbo, Thorin and the dwarves escape from the Wood Elves’ prison by hiding in barrels that are washed down the river, bringing them in contact with Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and then the vain, shifty and time-serving Lord of Laketown, played with florid gusto by Stephen Fry.
The barrel chase down the river is such a great setpiece: a head-spinning action spectacular with orc against elf against dwarf and hobbit. Somehow, the whole movie has this same huge, propulsive energy, whooshing the heroes onwards towards their great goal. Despite the dwarves’ tough reputations, and Bilbo’s expertise in the ignoble art of burglary, their diminutive size always gives them a weirdly childlike air in this story: an air of outraged and unquenchable innocence. Bilbo’s showdown with the terrible Smaug is, of course, the great finale, a narrative rhyme to his face-off with Gollum that concluded the last film.
And all the time, Jackson’s New Zealand landscape has a storybook beauty, a fitting habitat for this story that unfolds in all seasons and times of day: fallen snowflakes gather in beards, the last rays of sunset glint in fur. Jackson depicts this fantasy world with energy and charm, and I’m looking forward to the third film.
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