To complete their quest to Erebor, Bilbo (Freeman) and the dwarves must pick their way through a phantasmal forest, navigate raging rapids and escape the clutches of Lake-town's corrupt Master (Fry). Then there's the small matter of a dragon...
You've seen his King Kong. Now prepare for Peter Jackson’s Donkey Kong. About an hour into the raucously entertaining middle slab of the Hobbit trilogy, having already tangled with hissing arachnids, a fearsome bear-man and sundry other perils, our posse of undersized heroes clamber into wooden casks and are lobbed into what’s not so much an action sequence as an unrelenting pile-up of lunatic, barrel-based gags. As they rocket down-river, pursued by elves and orcs (who are simultaneously waging war in the branches above), oak cylinders fly at the camera, plunge down fizzing waterfalls and bounce off rocks to scatter servants of evil like skittles. As rousing and inventive as Kong’s triple-T-Rex face-off, this multi-million-dollar flume ride is — with apologies — barrels of fun. And to think that at this stage in the last film, the dwarves were still loading the dishwasher.
While An Unexpected Journey had plenty of bucolic charm, it did, for a Middle-earth film, feel oddly inconsequential. The Desolation Of Smaug remedies that. Moody, urgent and, for want of a better word, Ringsier, it’s a much more satisfying film. If anything, it dispenses with early events with something approaching impatience: Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), the aforementioned bear-man, is left behind before we’ve really had a chance to savour his peculiar brand of beastly intensity (though no doubt he’ll be back to claw up baddies in the Battle Of Five Armies), and the same goes for Mirkwood’s hallucinatory boughs, which have the company tripping balls in a variety of amusing ways.
One problem with the former film was that it re-trod too closely the footsteps of the Fellowship: it was difficult to share Bilbo’s awe at entering Rivendell, given that we’d already been there 11 years before. Here, you can feel Jackson’s relief at having entirely new worlds in which to play. The forest domain of the Silvan Elves has beauty edged with menace, plus it gives Lee Pace (great as the dagger-eyed Thranduil) an amazing elk-horned throne. But the real standouts are Lake-town and Erebor, contrasting but equally stunning showcases of production design. The former, a fog-shrouded, Dickensian burg that we’re informed “stinks of fish oil and tar”, is a new, pleasingly earthy flavour for Middle-earth. Like Edoras in The Two Towers, it was largely built for real and bristles with detail. Kingdom-under-the-mountain Erebor, on the other hand, is the kind of mad location that could only exist on a Weta mega-computer, its centrepiece a stash of wealth so vast it would give Scrooge McDuck a quacking fit.
As Bilbo (a still spot-on Martin Freeman) and co. near their destination, the film gets increasingly busy, splitting the group in two and intercutting between those strands and Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who’s off poking around the ruins of Dol Guldur. That storyline still hasn’t quite caught fire (it basically amounts to the wizard yelling at a giant, evil ink-blot), and it could be argued that more screentime might have been usefully given to the dwarves, who remain largely anonymous. Besides Thorin (Richard Armitage), whose facade of nobility is beginning to crumble, revealing baser motives beneath, the only one who gets much attention is Kili (Aidan Turner), vying with a returning Legolas (Orlando Bloom) for the attentions of auburn-haired elf ninja Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). As love triangles go, it’s fairly rote — and might have been more dramatic were Kili not the one dwarf who looks like an elf anyway — but Tauriel, a character created for the film who’s already got some Tolkienites raging, fits seamlessly into the world and gets to execute several pleasingly brutal orc-kills: at points, the film’s one arrow-in-the-head away from turning into The Raid.
Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage give good sleaze in their brief appearances as Lake-town’s venal Master and his aide, Alfrid. Luke Evans is surprisingly Welsh as hero-in-waiting Bard The Bowman. But the standout new character is, predictably, the titular beast. He’s played Khan; now Benedict Cumberbatch draws on Shere Khan for his performance (vocal and mo-cap) as the blazing-eyed, honey-voiced, spike-helmed “serpent of the north”. We’ve seen many a dragon on screen before, but nothing with this much personality: Smaug is a startlingly well-executed creation, toggling between arrogance, indolence and rage as he uses his wyrm-tongue to try to draw out Bilbo. And once he does, the film kicks into full throttle for an immense, half-hour finale that threatens to bring down the mountain itself. It’s Jackson once more at the top of his game; God knows what he has in store for part three.
Middle-earth's got its mojo back. A huge improvement on the previous instalment, this takes our adventurers into uncharted territory and delivers spectacle by the ton. And in case you were wondering, yes, someone manages to say the title as dialogue.