The Hobbit review: A middle earth version of Die Hard

Deepanjana Pal

Dec 13, 2013 09:20:37 IST

There’s a whiff of blasphemy to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The Middle Earth that director Peter Jackson has presented us with as an early Christmas present isn’t precisely how JRR Tolkien imagined that world. In Tolkien’s novel, The Hobbit, dwarves were stubby, hairy, greedy little creatures. In Jackson’s film, there are a few dwarves matching Tolkien’s descriptions, but a healthy percentage is bearded, buff and smouldering, despite being vertically challenged. (So much so that Buzzfeed was inspired to rank the dwarves in order of hotness.)

The screenplay, credited to Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, turns Tolkien’s languid tale into a set of swashbuckling fight sequences, including a chase down a river (involving orcs, dwarves in barrels and a singularly limber elf) that makes the regular car chase of action movies seem positively boring.

Most gasp-inducingly, Jackson and gang have changed the story. Not only have they inserted Legolas as an important character in The Hobbit, they’ve also created a whole new character – Tauriel, a she-elf with fighting skills that would make Katniss of Hunger Games throw down her bow.

 The Hobbit review: A middle earth version of Die Hard

A poster from The Hobbit

Yet, despite all these un-Tolkien tweaks, The Desolation of Smaug feels wonderfully Middle Earthy and manages to be satisfying whether or not you’re a fan of the book. Jackson takes a few chapters with very little substance and turns it into three hours and ten minutes of magnificent adventure. The plot is threadbare, but there’s enough drama and tension to keep you on the edge of your seat.

In The Desolation of Smaug, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is still making his way through Middle Earth with 12 dwarves and Gandalf (Ian McKellen). This time, their route takes them to the black forest of Mirkwood ruled by a somewhat creepy elven king named Thranduil; the crumbling Lake-town, inhabited by miserable humans of whom only one, Bard (Luke Evans), seems to have any heroic potential; and finally to the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) and a pile of treasure awaits Bilbo and company. The prince of Mirkwood, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) joins the party in this film, as does Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly).

There’s no doubt that Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy haunts the second part of his telling of The Hobbit series. Whether it’s in terms of characters, storytelling or cinematography, the resemblances are many. It’s as though stories in Middle Earth follow a formula. Instead of the Fellowship, it’s a band of dwarves. Just as we saw the Fellowship cross distances in panoramic shots of the gorgeous New Zealand countryside, the dwarves do the same with Gandalf. In LOTR, Saruman splattered Gandalf against a wall; this time, it’s the Necromancer. Elves, diligent and spooky-eyed as ever, keep saving the day.

Bard is this series’ Aragorn: son of a man, looking to redeem himself for his ancestor’s mistakes, a skilled warrior who hides his royal lineage by doing unglamorous work (Aragorn disguised himself as a Ranger; Bard is a boatman). Although the love story isn’t between Bard and Tauriel, the she-elf is very much the equivalent of Arwen. She even has a let-there-be-light moment while healing a dwarf, just like Arwen did.

However, none of this gets in the way of The Desolation of Smaug being a fabulous entertainer. The sharp pace of the film keeps you from dwelling on the questionable aspects of the script, like the profusion of coincidences and how abruptly minor characters disappear once they’ve done their bit. The dwarves are great fun, whether they’re fighting as a team or squabbling amongst each other.

Richard Armitage as Thorin is in competition with Aidan Turner’s Kili for the Most Smouldering Dwarf of 2013. Freeman is charming as Bilbo, mixing up hobbity good humour with the dark maturity and cruelty seeping into him through Sauron’s ring, which he picked up in the first film. Tauriel may not be a Tolkien creation, but she fits into Middle Earth beautifully. She adds a delicious nuance to the story when she challenges her king, Thranduil (despite being very low in the elvish pecking order) and possesses a maturity that Legolas, for all his nifty moves, is yet to display.

With Jackson’s films, you expect the special effects to be spectacular, but in The Desolation of Smaug they’re woven so neatly into the storytelling that even if you know what happens next, Jackson manages to throw in surprising twists that will keep you at the edge of your seat. Episodes like the terrifying sequence with bloodthirsty spiders or the scene in which the Necromancer appears – Jackson weaves in a touch of Sauron imagery, suggesting the two are connected – are unforgettable. The encounter with Smaug, who is hypnotically menacing thanks to Cumberbatch’s rumbling baritone, is spectacular. Matching the cleverness of the special effects are the superbly-choreographed fight scenes.

It seems odd to say that a film based on a book by Tolkien is an action blockbuster, but The Desolation of Smaug is like the Middle Earth version of Die Hard. And it works, fantastically at that.

Updated Date: Dec 13, 2013 09:28:05 IST