The Desolation of Smaug is dripping with high-octane, vigorous action and rarely falters in its execution of all that we love about Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth.
It might also be the master storyteller’s darkest adventure in J.R.R Tolkien’s wondrous world.
Opening in typical Jackson style – jumping through time to provide additional context and gently remind audiences of what’s already happened – we drop in on Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and the banished king dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) in a delightfully dingy boozer, discussing their need of a light-footed burglar.
Fast forward 12 months and we join said burglar, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and a boisterous company of dwarves on their quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from the unctuous and malevolent dragon Smaug, exquisitely voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch.
A shot of the party traversing a landscape drenched in oppressive fog sets the tone for what’s a surprisingly gloomy feature. From an intoxicating trek through the forest of Mirkwood, to Laketown – a down on its luck trading settlement festering in the shadow of the dragon’s mountain – Jackson offers a plethora of grim treats.
Thankfully, his murky approach is not at the cost of the exuberance most had hoped for in this latest instalment. The innocent banter, swooning soundtrack and cartoonish facial expressions are as alive as ever, not to mention the catalogue of exhilarating fight scenes.
A well-handled return for Legolas (Orlando Bloom), in a love triangle to be continued; a joyous performance by Stephen Fry as the sickly, gout-ridden Master of Laketown; and many more fine characters contribute to a dazzling cinematic experience. But what makes the film such a riveting success is the devilishly alluring beast himself, Smaug. In a dialogue with Bilbo, reminiscent of the standout exchange of riddles with Gollum in the comparatively sluggish An Unexpected Journey, the creature announces himself as one of Jackson’s best realised characters.
A deep, rumbling drone, peacock vanity and edge of your seat tension lend to the compelling encounter. Not to trivialise Smaug’s considerable grandeur, but the temptation to describe him as The Jungle Book’s Kaa on steroids is frankly irresistible.
Anyhow, it’s a splendid prelude to a climax that roars like a Rammstein concert, grinding and clanging with industrial majesty, before a paper-thin veil of silence descends to precede next year’s finale. I can hardly wait.