The Desolation of Smaug has some big boots to fill. Following on from the trilogy’s hugely anticipated opening act the film manages to sidestep the curse of the sequel, a fate felt too keenly by many, and instead provides an engaging, if a little long, journey into Middle Earth.
We start with an encounter between Thorin (Richard Armitage), the party’s Dwarf leader, and Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen), an encounter that helps to flesh out and remind audiences as to why Thorin and co are undertaking the dangerous mission to the Lonely Mountain. Where its predecessor felt baggy and drawn out in places, The Desolation of Smaug is a much slicker affair.
The fact that the film feels this way may largely be due to the set pieces throughout. A particularly nasty encounter with some creepy forest dwellers makes for rather scary viewing (for a family film, at least) and, whilst it borrows some of its structure from An Unexpected Journey, when the dwarves are taken captive (more than once) it doesn’t feel overly repetitive.
The film bristles with old and new friends and foes, with some, like the original trilogy’s Legolas (Orlando Bloom, who comes skidding in in true Legolas style), tiptoeing between both camps. The wood elves are a force to be reckoned with, headed by a rather sinister leader. Evangeline Lily stars as the controversial Tauriel who soon becomes integral to the play of the story.
Stephen Fry can be found amongst the other new faces as he lords over Laketown, a town that keenly feels the presence of the mountain the dwarves journey to. Though still present, the previous film’s main villain is somewhat overshadowed by the menacing Bolg, who stops at nothing to ensnare the dwarves he follows.
Whilst the journey to the Lonely Mountain ensues, Gandalf does some journeying of his own, sleuthing to discover just what exactly is behind the recent rise in evil. His discoveries compliment those experienced by the dwarves, testament to director Peter Jackson‘s story-telling ability.
Amongst all this, Bilbo (Martin Freeman), the titular hobbit, fights his own battle. Ensnared by the power of the one ring, Bilbo must fight an inner battle in order to sustain his grip on reality. That’s not to say that this is the only battle he must face – or the hardest for that matter. While his journey encourages him both to live up to his title of burglar and to discourage the dwarves from losing hope, it also leads him to the best part of the film; the revelation of Smaug.
Hinted at in the first film, the true enormity of the dragon that claims the Lonely Mountain as his own is awe-inspiring, whilst the first glimpse of his face is a moment that 3D cinema was surely invented for. After proving his intellect when conversing with Bilbo, Smaug flexes his muscles and proves his destructive power. While the effects team excels in bringing Smaug to life it is Benedict Cumberbatch who breaths fire into the role, giving Smaug a seductively powerful purr that is as confident as his stride.
Ending with a true cliff hanger (arguably the best of the entire Lord of the Rings cannon), the final act is what sets this instalment apart from its predecessor. Some may still feel that there are too many dwarves to allow for any real character progression but there is a marked improvement here. Though not flawless, The Desolation of Smaug offers viewers a thrilling trip to Middle Earth.
Watch out for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Peter Jackson.