Gigantic beards, grandiose mountains and an enormous psychopathic talking dragon. It's so good to be back in Middle Earth with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The noble spirit of adventure continues and filmmaker Peter Jackson continues to amaze despite the ire of slightly underdone special effects and a camera with attention deficit disorder.
Picking up from the events of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and a company of dwarfs lead by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) continue a quest to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the dwarf kingdom of Ereborn.
Upon returning to Middle Earth you immediately feel like hanging up your cloak, grabbing a mug of ale and yelling 'Hobbits, I'm home!' The plot seamlessly picks up from Unexpected Journey and your thrust into the action with a thrilling battle against ferocious giant spiders, a phenomenal river chase sequence in wine barrels and the awesome skills of elves with bows and arrows on show. Jackson delivers jaw-dropping action set pieces that are a ludicrous amount of fun. Of course, all these sequences are just the opening act for the arrival of the dragon Smaug (a motion capture performance by Benedict Cumberbatch). Seeing Smaug reminded me of seeing the T-Rex in Jurassic Park for the first time. The attention to detail by the effects artists who worked to bring the character to life is incredible; scales like a dementedly tiled roof, a belly that swells with the fire of a furnace and a face that's sure to occupy millions of nightmares. I was completely in awe of the giant creature and instilled with fear from Cumberbatch's vicious performance which seemed to embody the spirit of every parent who has ever voiced Smaug when reading the novel of The Hobbit to their children.
Between the hacking and slashing Jackson juggles continuing to tell the story of the company of dwarfs bound for Ereborn while laying the foundations for the path that will lead to the events of The Lord of the Rings with Gandalf going on a side quest. It's a bold undertaking but it slowly starts to pay off as the massive revelations drop, all pieced together from J.R.R Tolkien's appendices, and it's certainly no filler. You can feel the events of The Desolation of Smaug rumbling through the entire series and Jackson's grand plan becomes clearer. Also, during Gandalf's detour Jackson gets to indulge in creepy gothic imagery that harks back to his origins as a young director making horror films.
Juggling so many characters is tricky for Jackson but each dwarf gets a little time to shine and a few new characters are introduced nicely as well as appearances from a few familiar faces from the series. The only misstep is a strange elf/dwarf love triangle is introduced that barely registers an emotional beat. The central focus is still on Bilbo and Thorin, and screenwriters Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro excellently show how their obsessions are beginning to consume them. Bilbo is beginning to manically protect the ring in his possession (you know the one) as well as testing the bounds of his new found courage. Thorin is so close to the end of his quest and he is willing to make reckless sacrifices to finish the job. It's interesting seeing the fine line between heroism and arrogance encompassed in these characters. Armitage has a regal presence and his performance continues to impress as Thorin becomes increasingly battered by the journey. There is a pain, longing and fierce desire in the actor's performance. Freeman blends the humour and drama of Bilbo's experience beautifully. His transition from freshman to a sophomore adventurer is engaging especially when he unlocks the killer instinct to protect the ring.
There are little niggles that irritate especially when Jackson can't keep his camera still. The movement is wonderfully fluid during the frenetic action sequences but in the quieter moments it's constantly swooping and makes it difficult to enjoy the scenery or focus on a character's actions. Despite the masterful digital creation of Smaug there are undercooked special effects at times. It's made even worse in contrast to the natural scenery and the blurry flashes of botched effects or a lingering green screen projection yanks you out of the immersive experience.
Jackson is a grand wizard of spectacle and epic storytelling who is conjuring all the pieces of Tolkien's grand universe together and the eye popping excellence continues in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies