Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

20:32, Dec 11 2013

Directed by Peter Jackson

I really didn't like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when I first saw it.

It was in 3D, and the much vaunted 48fps ''High Frame Rate'', on the best screen in Wellington, sitting with people who had all worked on the film, and who clapped and cheered whenever one of ''their'' bits came on screen.

And so, in a spasm of professionalism, I went to see the film again. The second time around I chose a smaller cinema, showing a standard print.

And, freed from the distraction of the 3D, and the unfamiliar brightness and sharpness of the HFR, I thought the story-telling and the characters had far more resonance and power than they did with all the technological bells and whistles getting in the way.

I've asked around in the year since, and I know many people feel the same way; the HFR, combined with 3D, was a distraction for some, and the story suffered for it.

Then again, I can't look at a fluorescent tube without wanting to commit an act of violence, and yet I know people who work under them all day. So possibly I've just got a cockamamie visual cortex.

So I wasn't really looking forward to seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug this week. Lovely though it is to be invited to a red carpet premiere, I really would rather have slipped into some provincial flea-pit to watch the film.

But the deadline wouldn't allow that, so there I was on Monday night, not holding my breath that I was going to particularly enjoy the 160 minutes to come.

But you know what? This film is better than Unexpected Journey.

In fact, The Desolation of Smaug is so good it actually gave me a fresh appreciation of what that first part of the trilogy had achieved.

If Unexpected Journey seemed to take an awfully long time to cover very little story (which is surely a peril, when making a film about short people who walk everywhere) it did at least introduce us very thoroughly to the troupe.

So that when The Desolation of Smaug kicks off with a hiss and a roar, we aren't wondering who these hairy little oddities are.

The emotional investment was made last year, and now we can sit back and thrill to the spectacle of them banging around some of the more perilous and pointy bits of Middle-Earth, knowing that most of the exposition has been dealt with, and this film can get on with the serious business of being your ticket's worth of bloody good fun.


Whereas Journey never got near repeating the tension of Bilbo meeting Gollum, Smaug has four or five scenes from which to choose your favourite.

Peter Jackson, and his co-directors Andy Serkis and Christian Rivers, have assembled a feast of battles and escapades. The story never feels perfunctory, and yet every situation leads to another scrap, another hair-raising escape.

There's magic in this film, and an economy and a leanness that the editors - I'm guessing - didn't have the time to cut into Journey.

Whereas Journey showed us every tea cup being put back on Bilbo's shelves, Smaug tells us as much as we need to know, and then tears into the next set-piece with absolute gusto.

The effect is exhilarating. At two hours and forty minutes, no one's claiming that Jackson hasn't again heroically cast off the shackles of brevity, but this time around, everything that happens on screen drives the story forward, and what isn't needed has been jettisoned.

Happily, one early victim of this new economy is the character of Radagast, who threatened to be the Jar Jar Binks of the franchise in Journey. In Smaug he gets a couple of admirably terse and necessary scenes, and then he's gone.

And the High Frame Rate and 3D that so distanced the film from me a year ago?

It's different this time around.

The brightness has been dialled back, and the beauty of the sets, the costumes, the backgrounds, and all of Weta's myriad creations is all the more spectacular for it. The effect doesn't assault us this time, it just invites us to look more closely.

I liked The Desolation of Smaug very much. Sometime next week I'm going to see it somewhere a bit smaller, in a deserted mid-morning session, in 2D.

And then I predict I will absolutely love it.