Simply brilliant. Peter Jackson and his team of real-life wizards continue to work cinematic magic in The Desolation of Smaug, which picks up from the end of An Unexpected Journey and hurtles forwards at a blistering pace. Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the company of dwarves now have the Lonely Mountain in sight – and the dream of reclaiming Erebor from the fire-drake Smaug seems closer than ever.
Meanwhile, wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has more pressing issues to attend to. He leaves the quest at the edge of Mirkwood in order to investigate the mysterious Necromancer who resides in the ruined fortress of Dol Guldur. It’s a storyline only hinted at in Tolkien’s novel, but here it’s been expanded upon intelligently and respectfully. The filmmakers clearly cherish the material but are adapting it alongside additional appendices in order to build a rich tapestry of Middle-earth that ties into the mythology established in Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
As always, the production design is breathtaking. The amount of detail on screen is more than impressive at the worst of times. The effects, costuming, sets… all of it is as strong as you remember (all of The Hobbit movies were filmed simultaneously) – so I’ll not waste my breath going over the obvious. Where The Desolation of Smaug truly separates itself from what’s come before is in its fast pace and delirious action, with key setpieces being drawn from the best parts of the novel.
There’s a genuinely creepy segment involving gigantic arachnids, a rollercoaster race down a river in barrels and, of course, the jaw-dropping confrontation with Smaug the Magnificent himself – and that’s only to name a few! The ‘Barrels Out of Bond’ setpiece was a personal favourite of Jackson’s, and it’s easy to see why as it birthed some of the most raucous laughter of any audience I’ve been in this year!
But how about that dragon! Smaug is, without question, the greatest winged beastie ever realised in film. Intelligent, cunning and deeply villainous, Smaug is the Hannibal Lecter of dragons and ousts the majority of fantasy baddies by being overwhelmingly stupendous. Benedict Cumberbatch infuses the character with a wicked snark and personality, but special mention must also surely go the special effect gurus at Weta. And let’s not forget the flying furnace’s exotic and tense musical theme created by Howard Shore! Just terrific!
What’s the downside then? Well, character development gives way to action beats for starters. Bilbo becomes merely one of an ensemble joined by players such as Thranduil (Lee Pace) and Bard (Luke Evans) as well as returning favourites like Legolas (Orlando Bloom). I didn’t mind this however, as we got many of those slower moments in An Unexpected Journey – now’s the time for payoff! No doubt purists will despise the new and sometimes radical changes. Invented character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) foremost comes to mind, but in this testosterone-driven story I soon appreciated her creation.
The biggest outcry is sure to be the ending, which doesn’t end so much as it stops during the climax. It’s a cliffhanger – a HUGE cliffhanger – that will have at least a few people moaning in most screenings (think Halo 2’s ‘Finishing this fight!’ or Dead Man’s Chest’s final bite of the apple). Naturally, all these things meant I loved it! It’s refreshing to have a film like The Desolation of Smaug which, by being the middle child in an ongoing story, isn’t bound to the typical narrative path of most movies. While it still ends exactly where I expected it to end, it’s nonetheless a ballsy finale that’ll keep you counting down the days until There and Back Again lands next year.
A stunning achievement in epic fantasy filmmaking that simply shouldn’t be missed!