With over a decade spent immersed in Middle Earth literature, the scale and specifications of J R R Tolkien’s sprawling fantasy novels are so deeply entrenched in director Peter Jackson’s being, it renders his adaptations a fearlessness, which allows him to both– adapt a trilogy as well as create one — for the cinematic medium.
Only Tolkien’s The Hobbit is not a set of three books like The Lord of the Rings. But a rather droll and lively if concise adventure of thirteen dwarves and one hobbit, led by a charismatic Wizard (who disappears for long spells without explaining why) to recover ancestral treasure from Smaug, the fire-breathing dragon residing in Lonely Mountain.
Even though Jackson’s bold meddling and protracting of this not-so-lengthy matter is poised for a nearly nine-hour long feature, the upshot is anything but rambling. The Hobbit series continue to exhilarate and astound with its ingenious tradition of tribute, technology and tenacity. And experiencing it in 3D certainly adds to the tangibility of knowing a hostile, intriguing ambiance.
Following a venerating, nostalgia-filled first installment (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), outwitting spells and surreal imagery makes way for a starker, perilous chapter in the quest. The healthy browns and greens of An Unexpected Journey are traded for ominous shades of grey and gold in The Desolation of Smaug.
Even as songs and supper take a backseat, our titular hero — Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman’s transformation from goofy to gallant is subtle, gradual, believable) comes of age saving his shaggy group’s neck from relentless trouble.
He’s a changed man, observes Gandalf (Ian McKellen, there’s far too little of the towering veteran for my liking) and then excuses himself to conduct some urgent business. One that Tolkien didn’t deem worthy of explanation in the book but Jackson keenly labours to enlighten us with by drawing out from subsidiary material, connecting the dots and shifting the chronology.
Those who’ve come to terms with Hobbit’s extended narrative will view it with fascination, rest will find some more to quibble about.
This rearranging of the legendarium leading to Gandalf’s discovery, about the Necromancer in Dol Guldur, explains the flashes accompanying the Grey Wizard’s discomfort on sighting the ring in Frodo’s possession (in The Fellowship of the Ring).
Of course, the film deviates a lot from the book in structure, tone and complexity but carries the same set of values at its core.
Having said that, I cannot say Tolkien would approve of a hasty triangle between Woodland Elf, Tauriel (A Peter Jackson creation essayed by a feisty Evangeline Lily), Legolas (Orlando Bloom reprises his career-making role) and Kili (Aidan Turner, the prettiest dwarf in dwarf history). Jackson dwells on the attachment fleetingly, treating it as some sort of romantic relief, immediately offset by blustering displays of bravado from the arrow-blasting elves. It’s heartening to see Lily’s nimble action star moves occasionally take centre stage amidst a male-swamped scenario.
Between their strategically orchestrated heroics and Gandalf’s probing, The Hobbit briskly advances from one action set piece to another with Bilbo, Thorin (Richard Armitage is fittingly distant, anxious) and rest of the dwarf party one still doesn’t know on first-name basis.
Bombur (Stephen Hunter, the portly red-head), indeed, achieves his moment of fame spinning about in a wrecked cask in course of the extraordinary barrel escape sequence. It’s spectacle like this that earn Jackson the right to indulge his excessive side, the luxury to imagine beyond the written word.
If An Unexpected Journey takes time to settle in and unload, Desolation of Smaug gallops off at once.
A stealthy overture at a tavern in Bree sets the ball rolling followed by encounters with the curious and the creepy – Beorn (a majestic Mikael Persbrandt), the erratic shape-shifter, Thranduil (Lee Pace brings in perfect piquancy), the haughty Elvenking reigning over Mirkwood, Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry is a scream), a sly, sluggish, debauched power-monger, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans, somber but doesn’t stand out), the voice of the struggling masses, the thrilling spider massacre at the hands of Bilbo’s Sting blade, the ceaseless attacks at his company by an army of goblins/orcs/wargs and the shrewd showdown with the mighty dragon, Smaug (in the motion-captured gestures and voice of an exceptional Benedict Cumberbatch).
Unlike the Gollum-Bilbo equation, where there’s humoring and battle of wits at play, with Smaug, the hobbit is cautious, sycophantic and tactful. And Smaug? In his own words, his teeth are swords, claws are spears, wings a hurricane. ‘I am fire. I am death,’ he warns. Despite such fierce description, Smaug (in the combined talents of perceptive CGI and Cumberbatch’s nuanced baritone) is just so brilliant; it’s easy to forget which side you’re rooting for.
Evil was never this seductive. Nor second parts of what may produce a formidable finale after yet another 12 agonizing months of wait.