By Sophie Mahon
Director: Peter Jackson; Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro; Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Aiden Turner; Running time: 161 mins; Certificate: 12A
One year after The Unexpected Journey comes the thirteen dwarves and their ‘burglar’ Bilbo’s unexpected – yet totally thrilling detour, in The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson’s second instalment of the three-part adaption based on J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.
This next chapter sees courageous hobbit Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his company of dwarves continue their travels to The Lonely Mountain to reclaim their Dwarven kingdom from the fire-breathing dragon Smaug, voiced by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch. Their task is simple: get to The Lonely Mountain before the last light of Durin’s day and find the secret stone doors to the inside. But simple, it was never going to be.
Kicking off the action in the forest of Mirkwood, Jackson perfectly executes his horror credentials as the company are faced with hundreds of giant ravenous spiders. Warning to all arachnophobes – if you cringed at Shelob in Return Of The King you’ll definitely be watching this sequence through your fingers, as the creepy hissing beasts are promisingly terrifying. Although, fear of spiders aside, the realistic detail is incredible. The return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is certainly a highlight, as he and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) soon show up to save the day, only to put the group behind bars in their Elven prison. After a heroic Bilbo sets everyone free, they are soon caught in the middle of a spectacular elf-orc-dwarf battle on the banks whilst travelling downstream the river in barrels.
Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) sneaks the company into Lake-town, a part of middle earth unseen in previous The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies, where Stephen Fry gives a pleasant and surprising portrayal of the town’s Lord. A healthy dose of the story takes place in the village which sets up the third film's action nicely.
Whilst this is all extremely exhilarating, it feels a little like killing time on screen before the big reveal of Smaug, which is what we really want to see. However, it is certainly worth the wait as once Bilbo & co eventually make it to the mountain, we finally see Bilbo’s highly anticipated confrontation with the treasure-hoarding dragon, a particularly impressive, terrifyingly life-like beast, which is where the real action starts.
As the scene unfolds it is truly triumphant as the graceful, mannered yet cunning dragon constantly keeps us on our toes whilst antagonising a tiny Bilbo in comparison. The menacing CGI villain certainly gives Gollum a run for his money. Freeman’s performance alongside Smaug is fastastic. His laidback and more down-to-earth lines and reactions to the dragon make a pleasing and interesting contrast to Thorin, the raging alpha dwarf grimly intent on fulfilling his destiny of reclaiming his people’s homeland.
If all of this wasn’t enough to captivate you, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) once again embarks a journey of his own as he leads the White Council to drive the Necromancer out of Dol Guldur. Not to mention Jackson’s stunning New Zealand landscapes which once again do not fail to depict the beauty of this fantasy world.
As Bilbo’s relationship with the ring becomes more and more intense, it also starts to take a psychological toll on the hobbit, enabling Freeman to explore new and darker dimensions of the character. Lord of the Rings fans will certainly enjoy seeing Bilbo’s early interactions with the dark object.
Peter Jackson hasn’t been one for the ‘team Edward / team Jacob’ approach throughout his reign as director of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series, but an unexpected love triangle takes form of newcomer Tauriel played by Lost’s Evangeline Lilly, a fierce warrior elf, and her two suitors Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and a less species-appropriate, yet charming and handsome dwarf Killi (Aiden Turner). Maybe it’s a little unnecessary but it certainly drives forward a compelling ‘Who will she choose?’ narrative arc. Evangeline Lilly however, gives a brilliant performance as the first female heroine of the franchise.
So after a slower start in the first movie, The Desolation of Smaug combines fast-paced, breathless action with some witty moments to lighten the gloom and tension fogging over the atmosphere of the film. The story ends on a perfect high, one which will leave you eager for the third and final instalment.