As far as I’m concerned, Peter Jackson was always on a bit of a hiding to nothing when he first showed us his dwarves. In ‘An Unexpected Journey’, the pre-cursor (and it really, really is) to what can best be described here as a ‘proper stab’ at returning us convincingly to Middle Earth, we were introduced to these little angry chaps for the first time in any kind of real detail. If you’re not a fan or devotee of the Tolkien books around which this series of fantasy blockbusters are based (and why should you be, you’re not alone, I assure you) then you will only really have gleaned anything regarding Gimli and his familial ancestors from the Lord of the Rings movies that came before. Details there were scant at best. And for good reason.
Looking like products of an over enthusiastic make-up department, the dwarves in ‘An Unexpected Journey’ were accidentally but definitely amusing. Not only did they look ridiculous, but their actions were equally in keeping with the notion that these little people were proud, but only ever a hair’s breadth from out and out comedy. Here, they still retain an aura of circus entertainers rather than warriors with the gravitas to convince an audience that they could be anything other than periphery, given what else was available, like Wood Elves (Evangeline Lily and Orlando Bloom) or the purposely funny and haphazard Bilbo Baggins, who has more charm and better lines.
Criticism levelled at the franchise (for that is what it is, reality fans) have surfaced in many areas, but the most notable and prevalent gripe appears to be from those that have read and loved the book. Oddly, despite the fact that there has already been one film in this series and an acknowledgement that there will be two more before the admittedly short story is completed, naysayers continue to beat their literary chests about the distance Jackson has taken this story from the original text.
Why this is an issue, I personally fail to understand. If you want a film to be just like the book you imagined in your head as you read it, then good luck, because your film will only be as good as your imagination at best, not someone else’s. Frankly, if you don’t like your memory being shot to pieces by the imagination of another, then I suggest you either refrain from watching this or alternatively, make your own version more in keeping with what you believe is a more honest and recognisable treatment. No, Tolkien fans, it’s not that faithful, but really, you should have noticed that much already. Hence, don’t complain because you knew this beforehand. Berate yourself, by all means, for being right about something you don’t like but went to pay to see it anyway to prove you were right all along, but don’t surprised by it. It just makes you look a bit foolhardy and predictable.
The continuing story of Bilbo Baggins in The Desolation of Smaug is, despite the criticisms, is a very good example of a blockbuster in the sense that it is lavish, beautiful to look at and embellished with an appearance that refuses to be bowed by cost. It is a massive technological undertaking produced with acute care and attention and it entertains throughout its extensive running time. Like many blockbusters, it lacks a convincing script or narrative thread, which comes apart in too many places to point out here, but it’s safe to say that it leaves the ardent fan scratching his or her head on several occasions. The cost of producing something for everyone means that you will inevitably not provide enough of everything for the enthusiast. Niche audience members may complain that Gandalf isn’t grey enough or other such nonsense, and while that may or may not be true, does it really matter? It’s reason for being is to convincingly whisk the viewer away from reality for a few short hours and it does this easily. In the previous outing, this reviewer was left looking at his watch a little too often to say the same as you can here. This second (or fifth, if you’re being pedantic) film in the series is less burdened by narrative placement and it shows. Because the characters have largely been introduced and fleshed out already, it does afford Jackson and Boyens the opportunity to flex themselves from origin to action, really letting loose with the ‘extra features’ that lovers of the original book appear to take most umbrage with. The rest of us, the less critical maybe, then have the opportunity to really be entertained.
In summary, ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ is a noticeable step up from ‘An Unexpected Journey’ that will go some way to restoring faith in what may have been seen as a flagging giant. More thrills, less pointless chat and an on-form Martin Freeman as Bilbo (this time with better lines and more opportunity to shine, even with less screen time) make this the best this time around. Not a patch on any of the LOTR series, but better than we should really have expected. The CGI might have been a little ropey on the eye candy from time to time, but this is more than made up for by the wickedly entertaining Smaug, played lasciviously by Benedict Cumberbatch. Great fun overall.