We rejoin our titular character Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) in Middle Earth, who continues on his quest to reclaim Erebor alongside the loyal Company of Dwarves, led by the fierce and determined Thorin (Richard Armitage), as they set their sights on the Lonely Mountain, desperately hoping to defeat the seemingly indestructible, fire-breathing dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) and re-acquire their homeland. Unfortunately along the way they encounter several giant spiders, and have a vicious and infallible army of Orcs on their tail, having to defeat whatever gets in their way without the help of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) – who seems to have disappeared on a secret mission of his own.
There is a distinct lack of build up to this thrilling, unrelenting fantasy flick, and the film benefits greatly as a result, as we jump straight into the action, compared to the opening chapter of this trilogy, which had the task of setting the scene, which was managed in a somewhat elongated fashion. Time flies by too, which is no doubt helped along by the episodic approach, feeling almost like a video game with various different levels and challenges the dwarves must overcome, as we drift between various, potentially fatal, settings. As a result, The Desolation of Smaug is a darker, more solemn and intense offering, not nearly as jovial or light-hearted as the previous film. Not to say this isn’t humourless at all, it’s just far less farcical, and Freeman isn’t given nearly as much comedic freedom, and instead the narrative takes precedence.
Despite the fantastical elements and supernatural surroundings, it’s a film you can relate to from a human perspective, as a prevalent theme throughout, is that of greed and addiction, as Thorin in particular in conveyed in an intriguing manner: his loyalty to Bilbo put into question as his quest and hunger for returning home supersedes all other emotions. Armitage portrays the role incredibly well, while Freeman is also impressive, although in this picture he is something of a cipher, as although everything revolves around him, only a mere handful of the key scenes fall into his lap. Meanwhile it’s encouraging to see a strong, female lead (something missing in the entire Lord of the Rings franchise) – with Evangeline Lilly starring as the elf Tauriel.
Tauriel – alongside Legolas (Orlando Bloom) – does a rather helpful job protecting the dwarves, though that doesn’t take away from the impact of the genuinely fearful antagonists. Of course the dwarves are the inherent underdog of Middle Earth which doesn’t help matters in this regard, but the freakishly daunting Orcs combined with the intimidating and menacing Smaug, you simply can’t see how our protagonists will make it out alive – which is a commendable achievement for Jackson, to instil this doubt considering we all know full well that Bilbo’s going to be around for part three.
Where The Desolation of Smaug truly comes into its element, however, is within the breathtaking technical accomplishment that Jackson has achieved. Our undersized protagonists spend the vast majority of their time with much taller characters, and yet you never question it – quite a feat given some of the actors playing the dwarves are over six foot tall. The special effects and CGI are incredible too, and this is simply a remarkable achievement of filmmaking, proving the extraordinary possibilities for the big screen in contemporary cinema.
Though there is a distinct lack of songs this time around (some of us liked them in the first, okay!), Jackson evidently takes great pleasure in just giving us all this wonderful sense of escapism, with some unashamed, fantastical fun to indulge in, as we now eagerly anticipate the third and final picture and the grand finale this franchise has promised. To top it all off, even national treasure Stephen Fry gets in on the action. That’s an extra star right there.