We’ve had goblins and Gollum and now it’s time to enter the dragon for this breathless and sure-footed middle slab of Peter Jackson’s second Middle Earth saga.
The bumpy beginnings of Bilbo Baggins’ unexpected journey were a worrying sign for this elongated adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s children’s novel.
However, just as The Two Towers was an an improvement of The Fellowship Of The Ring (and the best of the The Lord Of The Rings trilogy in this reviewer’s opinion), Jackson has rediscovered his Middle Earth mojo following the relative disappointment of An Unexpected Journey for this hugely enjoyable follow-up.
The now standard near three-hour running time this time doesn’t feel like a slog as the film zips from one frenetic set piece to another, while the introduction of new characters and environments enrich this expansive universe rather than weigh it down.
No concessions are made for the uninitiated as the story picks up where it left off, with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) accompanying a 13-strong band of Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their lost treasure from the dragon Smaug. Their journey is made more perilous by the fact they’re being hunted by a bloodthirsty group of orcs, while the identity of the evil Necromancer who has been marshalling the orc forces is revealed.
In spite of the film’s length, the first thing that’s apparent when watching The Desolation Of Smaug is its urgency. The decision to stretch a 300-page novel into a trilogy that in all likelihood will last close to nine hours still grates with many, but the flab that bloated much of An Unexpected Journey is trimmed down here.
In the time it took Bilbo to leave the Shire in the first film, our not-so merry fellowship has evaded orcs, encountered a mysterious ‘skin-changer’ and made it to the oppressive confines of Mirkwood. If anything, the film zips about too much towards the end and looses its direction as it attempts to juggle too many balls.
While the set pieces of An Unexpected Journey were largely underwhelming, The Desolation Of Smaug delivers a breadth of spectacle that reminds you why you fell in love with LOTR. The creepy giant spider sequence in Mirkwood is masterfully done and reminiscent of the nightmarish attack by huge insects in Jackson’s version of King Kong. It also offers Freeman’s one real moment to portray the dehumanising effect of the Ring as a horrified Bilbo recoils at the possessive fury he temporarily succumbs to.
Just as Jackson captures the dark and suffocating mood of the spider sequence, he switches things up in the tremendously entertaining barrel escape from the wood elves. Shot like a roller coaster ride and infused with as much humour as danger, it’s exhilarating stuff.
And what of Smaug? As a work of CGI, it rivals Gollum and King Kong for sheer impact. Given voice by an oily Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is amusing, arrogant and deadly in equal measure and provides the film with a rousing final act. The interplay between Bilbo, who has been sent by the dwarfs into the dragon’s lair to retrieve a priceless heirloom, and Smaug is laced with tension as the hobbit flatters to deceive in the vain hope the beast will let him leave unscathed.
Freeman has visibly relaxed into the role and gets some lovely moments with his dwarf companions who, by sheer weight of numbers, still struggle to make much of an impact, save for Ken Stott’s Balin and Aidan Turner’s dashing Kíli.
The sense of entitlement, as well as the desire for power and its poisonous consequences are themes present in much of Tolkien’s work and are touched on here through a subtle shift in Thorin’s character, nicely played by Armitage.
It’s a shame McKellen’s Gandalf isn’t on screen more as, just as in An Unexpected Journey, he’s the star attraction. That said, the portentous scenes of him investigating the identity of the Necromancer are among the film’s strongest. As well as McKellen, Orlando Bloom also returns as a more impetuous Legolas, who has a personal attachment to Evangeline Lilly’s strong-willed Tauriel (a creation by Jackson and his fellow writers, presumably to balance the male/female scales at least a little bit).
This is a major improvement on An Unexpected Journey and, come the cliffhanger ending, you’ll be eager to find out how they get there and back again. That’s all the middle section of a trilogy can do, right?