Peter Jackon’s fifth foray into the world of Middle-earth is as hectic and drawn-out as we’ve come to expect, but unlike The Two Towers of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s mercifully a better film than its predecessor.
After a quick prologue at The Prancing Pony and with the laborious exposition laid out in An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug drops us in the middle of the action as the company seeks shelter from wargs and goblins at the house of the skin-changer Beorn.
For the next two and a half hours up until the closing refrain of Ed Sheeran’s end-credit anthem the second slice of The Hobbit is intense, complex and surprisingly involving; fight scenes are ridiculous almost to the point of self-parody and much of the episodic nature of Tolkien’s book comes across as mini-quest levels in a videogame, but it’s addictive.
Just to be back in Middle-earth is a delight. Whereas in the last film most of the story was spent eating cheese and seed cake in Bag End, here the rich landscapes of New Zealand are unlocked as the dwarves trek further afield from The Shire battling orcs, spiders and wood-elves. Laketown is rendered as evocatively as Edoras, Mirkwood as menacing as Fangorn, Dol Guldur as terrifyingly cool as Mordor.
The Desolation is unrelenting in its quest to entertain – fast-paced and CGI’d to the teeth
Admittedly the new additions to the cast are fleeting and underdeveloped (Mikael Persbrandt’s Beorn comes and goes in five minutes), though the much missed Legolas (younger and somehow even more of a show-off) and the ‘she-elf’ love interest Tauriel are a welcome sight in a sea of beards and axes.
The film is darker, as all sequels invariably are, which is evidently where Jackson’s strengths lie. The shadows are lengthening as the company nears Smaug’s lair and Gandalf prepares to take on the Necromancer; there are no washing-up songs, no hedgehogs named Sebastian and no Goblin Kings voiced by Barry Humphries.
For a fantasy adventure it’s an enjoyable, if overlong, addition to the trilogy
The Desolation is unrelenting in its quest to entertain – fast-paced and CGI’d to the teeth, the only time it ever pauses for breath is to focus on Bilbo’s encounter with the dragon, a scene almost as well-scripted as ‘Riddles in the Dark’, and demonstrates why Martin Freeman really is a perfect hobbit.
By the end the narrative is juggling three or four storylines at once in a desperate attempt to set the board for the final instalment: for a fantasy adventure it’s an enjoyable, if overlong, addition to the trilogy, but for those expecting the battles and destruction of The Lord of the Rings, There and Back Again shows no sign of slowing down.