Writer(s): Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro
Running time: 161mins
The lowdown: If The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a wobbly start to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug is where the saga finds its (hairy) feet. Darker in tone, with less slapstick and (thank God) no singing, it is an epic adventure through a dazzlingly realised, thrilling world. Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen and joined by LOTR alumnus Orlando Bloom as Legolas and newcomer Evangeline Lilly as warrior Elf Tauriel. And Smaug, the lethal dragon voiced with mellifluous menace by Benedict Cumberbatch, is set to become one of cinema’s best baddies.
The full verdict: Who knows how much of it was planned and how much was post-part one backlash? But, Peter Jackson has sharpened the edges, roughened the action and made a film that quests more comfortably alongside the original trilogy than the cartoonish first instalment.
Picking up where the characters were (literally) dropped off at the end An Unexpected Journey, Gandalf, Bilbo, Thorin, and his ragtag troop of dwarves seek respite at man-bear Beorn’s house (where the reception runs surly and violent).
Then it’s off to reclaim Erebor, the gold filled Dwarf Kingdom beneath The Lonely Mountain, and residence of tyrannical dragon Smaug.
The Desolation of Smaug puts the trilogy firmly back in the dangerous wonderland of Middle Earth. Bilbo and the dwarves’ trek through the haunted Mirkwood plays like Snow White’s flight through the black forest spiked with particularly bad LSD. And brilliantly realised giant spiders guaranteed to give major shivers.
Reminding audiences he is still the John Woo of fantasy action cinema, Jackson then loads his diminutive adventurers into barrels and launches them down raging rivers, pursued by elves and orcs, all three sides locked in one hell of a battle.
Remember the motorbike chase through the hilly village in Jackson and Spielberg’s Tintin movie? Pete’s mission statement seems to have been “do that for real” and he delivers a masterclass in criss-crossing action, with Braindead style beheading and arrow trauma thrown in to remind us of the director’s roots.
When it soars, The Hobbit 2 (for brevity’s sake) transports us back ten years to when those Kiwis first delivered fantasy worlds as big as you imagined them as a child.
Where it stumbles is in its structure, which lurches in fits and starts like a wounded Warg (those wolf things Orcs ride).
Not that there isn’t plenty of plot. As in Fellowship, Gandalf has his own adventure that uncovers a seriously dark conspiracy (and the return of a great villain), while Bilbo and the dwarves hook up with Bard (rising star Evans), a mysterious boatman from Laketown, a waterside village governed by Master (Fry at his oiliest).
Hot on their trail are Bloom’s Legolas and Lilly’s Tauriel (invented for the film and a welcome female presence in Tolkein’s boy’s club) and hotly pursuing everyone is an Orc army.
What’s missing is character. You’ll still be hard pushed to name a dwarf other than Thorin or Kili (Aidan Turner), given a romantic subplot with Tauriel that slows the movie, but may pay off emotionally in part 3.
Freeman, McKellen, Armitage, Evans and other cast members (including Lee Pace as Loki-alike Elf King Thranduil) are committed to their roles, but often feel like mere cogs in the story engine.
Saving its trump card for the finale, the movie unleashes Smaug in a sea of riches and fire. Jackson’s notes requested a beast with “a head as big as a bus” and that is what FX house Weta have delivered. A flawless piece of serpentine CGI, Smaug is malevolent and majestic, a measure of his success being we never question that he’s a talking dragon.
When Bilbo faces him in his subterranean hall of gold (a Watson/Holmes showdown to treasure) it is as thrilling as the hobbit’s encounter with Gollum in part one.
A cliffhanger ending suggests that part three’s Battle of the Five Armies will sit alongside the epic conflicts in LOTR’s part two and three.
But, more importantly, The Desolation of Smaug proves this prequel trilogy will not disappoint the way another saga did, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.