Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish
Five films into Peter Jackson’s extended sojourn in Middle Earth and you should by now know what you are getting into; if you haven’t been convinced thus far then nothing here is going to change your mind. If, however, you have bought in to this epic slice of world building you are in for a treat.
As is customary for these Tolkien adaptations, after initial cinema and home entertainment release comes the full monty bells and whistles version, with extras so comprehensive that you feel like you have been privileged an all access set visit and a longer more luxurious version of the film clocking in at just over three hours. Having the luxury of watching the film at home, where toilet and tea breaks are only a pause button away, has allowed Jackson to luxuriate in the world and relax the pacing, which gives it the feel of a particularly expensive TV box set binge marathon.
The biggest worry with this new trilogy was how do you make nine hours of film from such slender material without feeling bloated? As a children’s story, events whiz pass at a fair old clip, with no time to dwell on the deeper ramifications. Jackson takes that idea and submerges it into deeper waters, melding the quest to the more richer complex environment of The Lord of the Rings. The comic, light hearted approach, coupled with portents of encroaching doom, felt a little awkward in the opening film in the trilogy. The melding of two styles is much more successful in this second part, which skews darker and seems more of a piece with his earlier work. The peril seems greater and the performances and characters are beginning to shine (there are still too many bloody dwarves to remember though), the comedy is more developed and grotesque, and the child friendly level of violence has increased, while still maintaining the glorious ramshackle slapstick of his early horror work.
What the new films lack is the sense of excitement at a previously unfilmable work being realised on screen. The tool kit may have improved and the realisation become more dynamic, but there is a sense of the formulaic creeping into the franchise. Portentous prologue? Check. Exposition disguised as leisurely chit chat? Check. Superlative set piece? Check. Followed by Gandalf once again pissing of for another bit of wizard business, che....well, you get the idea. At least this time there are no bloody giant eagles to save the day.
McKellan is as good as ever, and wears the role like a cherished old smoking jacket, and if Martin Freeman seems like slightly obvious casting for Bilbo, he has now made it his own. He can be a slappably ironic actor, who looks one step away from winking to the camera, but here he downplays the cynicism and brings an open earnestness that makes for a truly likeable performance. The Dwarves still get stuck with characters that are a bit one note, either sexy, hungry, comedy or background fodder. That said, Richard Armitage’s Thorin may be somewhat dour and humourless, but he sells it with Shakespearean grandeur, and Kili gets a bit of interspecies romance with Evangeline Lilly’s Wood Elf, Tauriel. Ken Stott is the stand out, working with little but delivering great wisdom and a light hearted approach in equal measure. Out of the new cast, Lilly is the standout, making a deadly, slinky and empathetic Wood Elf that adds a much needed female character to root for and even manages to inspire some acting out of Orlando Bloom, who normally has all the flavour of a Rivita crisp-bread.
If the first Hobbit felt a little antiseptic and had a fondness for CGI that at times took it into Playstation game territory, then this feels a little more lived in and practical. The set of Laketown is a particular stand out, as are its grubby destitute citizenry, as exemplified by Stephen Fry’s testicle eating Master of Laketown.
Jackson has always been a virtuoso director, but one over the years who has been unable to kill his darlings. King Kong was bloated to extremes and The Return of the King ended like a guest you wanted to remove two hours after the party had finished. This is no exception. At the cinema it felt too long, and here at home...well, strangely, it feels fine, even with the extra footage, which doesn’t add a huge amount other than a little bit of comical business (the only exception is a couple of revisualised scenes featuring Gandalf and Thorin’s missing dad, which may create some continuity problems with the film versions later on). This is because Jackson has such a thorough concept of the world he has created. It becomes a pleasure to immerse yourself in the intricate model work and detail. From the largest sets to the smallest trinket, when you watch the extras you marvel at the care and attention to detail that has gone into this film.
As a director, his eye for a set piece is unsurpassed, and here he has three stand out moments that are the equal of any of his previous Tolkien films. A water barrel fight and a Spider attack that I’m sure will be a chore to watch for arachnophobes are worth the price of the disc, but it’s the big fella you have paid to see, and in Smaug, Jackson may have created the finest 40 minutes of blockbuster cinema this year. By turns suspenseful, frightening and brilliantly realised by all concerned, Cumberbatch motion capture performance and voice make Smaug both awe inspiring, vainglorious, smug and deadly, reminiscent of George Sanders' performance as Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. The cascade of gold that finally unveils him in all his breathtaking majesty is a sight to behold. When a film ends as well as this you can forgive some of its more formulaic moments. After The Hobbit, you hope Peter Jackson will return to more streamlined muscular fare, but until then who can begrudge him just one more wallow in Middle Earth?
Blimey, if you include the commentary you have over 13 hours of extras here. The set includes the 3D version over two discs, a standard 2D version on one disc and a further two discs for the appendices (or bloody big making of to you and me). Picture and sound are of reference quality here and, like all previous releases, the making of is intricately detailed and fascinating to watch (although don’t expect any criticism of the films) without feeling like PR puffery. Standouts are the creation of Smaug evolving from a bloated four legged dinosaur to the fearsome bat winged Serpent of the finished film, a set visit from comedian and chat show host Stephen Colbert, who turns out to be a massive Tolkien nerd, and the various fish related calamities Jackson inflicts on his dwarf cast. Strangest revelation is how much more charismatic Orlando Bloom is off camera than he is on. Enough extra scenes to luxuriate in over a few days, plus the always gregarious Jackson on commentary if you still don’t feel you have got enough from the discs. This is really the benchmark of how to deliver a set of quality extras for a new release that informs and educates the audience, rather than repackage a load of PR filler that serves no purpose.
I still think they should have had Paul Gascoigne singing Smaug on the Tyne over the credits instead of Ed Sheeran though.
By Jason Abbey