Handsome though Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit film was to behold, it was difficult to escape the feeling that its expansive duration was one big long tease: a setting in place of events that wouldn’t properly kick into gear until the next chapter.
If you agreed with that fairly major criticism, rest assured that it doesn’t apply to The Desolation Of Smaug, which, after a brief trip to a pub to get audiences up to speed with the story, accelerates to a sprint and seldom stops.
In essence, The Desolation Of Smaug is a two-and-a-half-hour chase, with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the rest of The Hobbit’s heroes continuing their journey to the Lonely Mountain with an army of Orcs in hot pursuit.
Far from giving Jackson less time to explore Middle Earth’s exotic minutiae, the renewed sense of pace and vitality makes Tolkien’s world seem all the more vibrant, and some sublimely staged action set-pieces are punctuated by moments of engaging visual poetry. A shot from Bilbo’s perspective shows how huge a bumblebee looks in relation to his diminutive form. Another brief scene where Bilbo pokes his head above a canopy of trees and feels the sun on his face is unexpectedly captivating, and stands out all the more because the scene after it is so dark and intense.
Peter Jackson is surely one of the finest world builders currently working in cinema, and he packs every frame with detail and texture. An ancient town resting on a lake, all dilapidated medieval houses and rickety walkways, has the mucky charm of a Hogarth engraving. A vast subterranean cathedral, with its grey light and colossal hanging tapestries, is a genuinely eerie sight.
Against these landscapes, Jackson’s gallery of characters continues to grow. Returning characters like Orlando Bloom’s elegantly deadly Legolas and Sylvester McCoy’s eccentric Radagast the Brown are joined by Lost’s Evangeline Lilly, who appears as brave Elf warrior Tauriel. A new addition created for the film, she’s a formidable presence in battle, and brings a frison of chemistry to her scenes with Aidan Turner’s Kili (“He’s quite tall for a dwarf, don’t you think?”, she coos). Then there’s Lee Pace as the flamboyant Elvenking Thranduil, Luke Evans as a somewhat surly Bard, and Stephen Fry as a the lugubrious Master of Lake-town.
Overwhelmingly, though, the film belongs to Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage as Bilbo and Thorin. With both characters compromised in some way by their own agendas – Bilbo’s now starting to feel the full, seductive effect of the ring he stole from Gollum in the first film, while Thorin is more grimly dedicated than ever to his recovery of the Arkenstone at any cost – the skills of their respective actors really begin to come into their own. Freeman’s performance is full of wit, comic timing and nervous energy (plus a new hint of aggression), while Artmitage is reliably grim-faced and unpredictable.
Although not without its moments of drama, The Desolation Of Smaug is best described as a pure action movie, with Jackson’s set-pieces positively leaping off the screen. An encounter in Mirkwood is akin to Aliens in its horror and aggression (and will surely prove quite frightening for younger audience members), while the book’s famous barrel scene is expanded and re-imagined in a fresh and thrilling way. Jackson’s fondness for beheadings and the gooey removal of limbs may push at the boundaries of the PG-13 certificate’s remit, but this harder edge is a welcome one, balanced as it is by an ever-present thread of good-natured humour.
Then we come to the much-anticipated title dragon, Smaug. As voiced and partly performed by a motion-captured Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s a fearsome beast, and gets one of the best villain’s entrances you’ll see all year. Prone to engaging in rambling monologues though he is, Smaug’s nevertheless a menacing force of nature, and his scenes sum up what makes this second Hobbit chapter so effective: there’s a far more present sense of danger here, a feeling that the central band of misfits are in real peril.
If there’s a problem with The Desolation Of Smaug, it’s that its ensemble of characters is now so broad that the constant cutting between disparate groups of Elves, Dwarves and wizards in different locations can become a little dizzying – particularly in the final third, where the sheer amount of parallel action threatens to derail the plot’s momentum somewhat.
It’s a side-effect, perhaps, of taking Tolkien’s lean story, splitting it into three and adding extra material from the author’s other works – by increasing the canvas, some of the story’s focus is lost. But as a continuation of the Hobbit film saga and as big screen escapism, The Desolation Of Smaug is a success. It’s rich in Jackson’s usual detail, and Howard Shore’s theme is as lush as it always is.
We can’t comment on how Jackson’s new-fangled High-Frame Rate fares this time (the presentation we saw was in the standard 24fps), but we can report that the 3D once again adds a pleasing layer of depth to the ever-expanding Middle-earth.
Brisk and exciting, The Desolation Of Smaug delivers on the promise set up in An Unexpected Journey, while also providing a compelling bridge to next year’s third chapter. If Jackson can keep the momentum going, then 2014’s There And Back Again will provide a satisfying capstone to the trilogy.
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is out in UK cinemas on the 13th December.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.