Far less homely and comedic than the first instalment, Peter Jackson's second Hobbit movie is faster and fierier. It also stars a dragon that will make the scales drop from your eyes. You won't beat it for pure, exhilarating entertainment this year.
If one could find fault with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (and many people did) it was the slightly slow pace, painstaking attention to detail and the drawn-out exposition as Peter Jackson set the scene for Bilbo Baggins’ awfully big adventure with a bunch of treasure-seeking dwarves in Middle Earth.
Viewers left wanting more after The Lord of The Rings’ dazzling sensory overload may have harrumphed their way through large parts of the LOTRs prequel. But this is Peter Jackson, a director who is, despite the criminal excising of the climactic Scouring of The Shire from The Return of The King, almost religiously faithful to JRR Tolkien’s original work. As he eased us back into the netherworld of Hobbits, dwarves, wizards and men, not a Halfling was left unfed, a character quirk unexplored or, indeed, a plate left unwashed and stacked.
Jackson, after all, has taken a 320-page children’s book and expanded it into a near nine-hour trilogy; this adaptation was always going to be fashioned with a craftsman-like perfection.
The Hobbit’s tale is a homely, bucolic yarn of little folk off on a dangerous mission to reclaim their homeland from a fearsome dragon who has stolen their treasure and sent them into bitter exile. It is the squall before the hurricane of LOTRs but right from the very start, this second instalment is fleet, and not just hairy, of foot.
We move into darker and more sinister territory as Bilbo and our band of reckless and unruly Dwarves voyage deeper into darker worlds far removed from fairytales. They traverse verdant countryside; explore petrified forests where giant spiders scamper and pounce (lovely, just lovely); ford Styx-like rivers; enter ruined cities on mountainous outcrops; and find friend and foe alike in a lake-side town presided over by Stephen Fry’s drunken and bumptious feudal lord. It is great, great fun - bawdy, bold, bloody, gorgeous to look at, and full of mystery and mischief.
And somewhere out there, many leagues away, lurks something very wicked indeed under Lonely Mountain - a gloating and greedy dragon called Smaug.
It is true to the story at nearly every turn but Jackson does take licence with the introduction of female Elf warrior Tauriel and whether or not she is there to attract a young female audience to a story fuelled by testosterone, she is a welcome addition indeed. Lost alumnus Evangeline Lily has great fun in the role, wary of Legolas’ affections and more than a match for his limber-limbed prancing when it comes to despatching Orcs.
Neither can Jackson resist attempting to recapture that old LOTRs’ black magic with talk of portents of war and strange events off to the south. Gandalf, scrambling on a cliff edge, even encounters Sauran for the first time in the form of The Necromancer.
Thankfully, the grey wizard’s urgent talk with pious, po-faced elves and the heraldic mumbo jumbo are kept to a minimum and anyway, they could never dull Jackson’s realisation of Middle Earth in all its multi-dimensional and awe-inspiring scope and scale. The Desolation of Smaug is always a rich visual spectacle. Jackson has thankfully chosen not to shoot at 48 frames per second, a technique that gave An Unexpected Journey a cartoonish and hyper real feel. Here we revert back to crisp vistas with depth and a convincing look.
There are many set-pieces of brilliantly sustained action and a canny mix of Dwarvish tomfoolery, slapstick and Orc-slicing carnage. An escape in a set of barrels is funny and thrilling as our raiding party splash down into a wharf and are then swept away by a raging current, trundling over weirs, and plunging down waterfalls as Orcs and Elves skirmish around them.
As the more grotesque and diabolical elements of the story creep into the narrative, we finally meet Smaug, “the Chiefest and Greatest of all Calamities” nestled deep below Lonely Mountain atop a slagheap of booty spilling out across the caverns. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s not just the Dwarves’ treasure he’s nicked – Smaug steals the whole movie as the vainglorious beast with the RADA accent. He is one part Clifford from the Listerine ad, and many parts greedy vanquisher who is terrible to behold in all his majestic and terrifying glory.
With LOTRs Jackson accomplished the greatest realisation of a fictional universe in cinema history and with this adrenalized trip he has elevated The Hobbit into an even higher plane of adventure. As with the first trilogy, you will once again be left with an awed respect for film-making on such a grand and technically brilliant scale. For sheer spectacle and non-stop entertainment, The Desolation of Smaug is easily the best of the year.