Give Martin Freeman an empty room and he'll give you comedy. The best parts of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — an admittedly mishandled movie in large — involved his subdued grimaces, his Chaplinian waddling, and the way he carried himself with equal parts neurosis and snark in every scene. If there is one primary misstep of An Unexpected Journey's terrifically improved sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, it is the spiritual absence of Bilbo Baggins.
Freeman's good-natured but disgruntled Hobbit takes a backseat to the Dwarf team in this chapter of Peter Jackon's three-part saga, distributing the heavy lifting among the front lines of the bearded mooks. Thankfully, we're not shafted with too much "Thorin's destiny" backstory, instead focusing on the trek forward, through far more interesting terrain than we got last time around. The Dwarves voyage through a trippy woodland that'll conjur fond memories of The Legend of Zelda's unnavigable forest levels and inside the borders of Lake-town, a man-occupied working class monarchy that is more vivid and living than any place we have seen yet in the series. And while Unexpected Journey's goblin caverns might have been cool to look at, none of the quests in Desolation feel nearly as close to a tangential detour. Every step the Dwarves take is one that beckons us closer to the central, increasingly engaging story.
Desolation is not entirely without its curiosities. While Gandalf's mission to meet the Necromancer serves to connect the Hobbit trilogy to the Lord of the Rings movies, the occasional cuts over to the wizard's pursuits are primarily distracting and just a bit dull. Although we're happy to welcome the Elf race back into our Middle-earth adventures, it's easy to imagine a version of this story that didn't involve side characters like Legolas and Kate... I mean, Tauriel... and still felt whole (perhaps even more cohesive). The latter's love affair with hot Dwarf Kili seems like a last minute addition to the canon, and one not built on anything beyond the cinematic rule that two sexually compatible attractive people should probably have something brewing alongside all the action.
But the most egregious of crimes committed by Desolation is, unquestionably, the shafting of Bilbo Baggins to secondary status. Yes, he proves himself a savior to his fellow travelers four times in the film, but long stretches of action go by without so much as a word from the wide-eyed burglar. When he finally takes center stage in his theatrical face-off with Smaug — an exercise in double-talk reminiscent of Oedipus outsmarting the Sphinx — the film picks up with a new, cool energy, with a chilling fun laced around the impending doom of their back-and-forth. We've been waiting since the first frames of Unexpected to see how the dragon material will pay off, and it does in spades... albeit in the final third of Desolation, but with equal parts gravitas and fun, to reunite us with our Tolkien passions once more.
Benedict Cumberbatch's dragon doesn't do much to subvert expectation — he's slithering, sadistic, vain, manipulative, and vaguely Londonian. But tradition feels good here. Smaug's half hour spent toying with the mousey Bilbo (who does get a chance to showcase his aptitude at small-scale physical comedy here) is terrific in every way.
Its Hobbit problem aside, Desolation proves itself worthy of Bilbo's past proclamation. "I'm going on an adventure!" more than pays off here, in the form of mystifying boat rides, edge-of-your-seat efforts in dragon slaying, and the most joyful action set piece we've seen in years. Twelve Dwarves, twelve barrels, and one roaring river amounts for enough fun to warrant your trip to the theater for this latest outing into Middle-earth.
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Although the fate of where their big-footed creatures will alight to shoot The Hobbit is still undetermined, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh have begun to officially cast the projects with Martin Freeman, as expected, set to play Bilbo Baggins. A host of other names was also announced Thursday.
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reports that a meeting is set for Tuesday between New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and Warner execs in a last-ditch effort to keep the films in the country, although The Independent cites Fran Walsh as saying The Hobbit could soon be enrolling in Hogwarts.
A government spokeswoman told the WSJ that talks between Key and Warner execs are scheduled to take place in Wellington on Tuesday, but she would not specify who is attending the meeting on Warners' behalf.
According to The Independent, Fran Walsh told Radio New Zealand on Thursday that Warners wanted to shift production to the UK's Leavesden Studios where the Harry Potter movies were filmed.
"They've got a huge studio that Harry Potter have vacated, that they own...that they say would be perfect for us," she said, adding that other UK locations were being scouted.
Reuters further reported, citing estimates from economists at New Zealand's ANZ-National bank, that the nation's economy could lose as much as $1.5 billion if Warner Bros. relocates the project.
Back to casting … New Line COO/president Toby Emmerich, Warner Bros COO/president Alan Horn, MGM co-CEO Stephen Cooper and Jackson also announced on Thursday that Richard Armitage, Aidan Turner, Rob Kazinsky, Graham McTavish, John Callen, Stephen Hunter, Mark Hadlow and Peter Hambleton have all been set.
While Deadline reports that nothing's definite, there are rumblings that James Nesbitt and David Tennant are up for roles, while Stephen Fry, Saoirse Ronan and Bill Nighy are possible participants.
Regarding Freeman, Jackson said, "Despite the various rumors and speculation surrounding this role, there has only ever been one Bilbo Baggins for us. There are a few times in your career when you come across an actor who you know was born to play a role, but that was the case as soon as I met Martin. He is intelligent, funny, surprising and brave -- exactly like Bilbo and I feel incredibly proud to be able to announce that he is our Hobbit."
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