You’ve seen his King Kong. Now prepare for Peter Jackson’s Donkey Kong. About an hour into the raspingly hilarious middle slab of the Hobbit trilogy, having already complicated with hissing arachnids, a fearsome bear-man and sundry other perils, our posse of undersized heroes clamber into wooden casks and are lobbed into what’s not so much an action scene as an unrelenting pile-up of lunatic, barrel-based jokes. As they speed down-river, being chased by elves and orcs (who are simultaneously waging war in the branches above), oak cylinders fly at the camera, plunge down fizzing waterfalls and bounce off rocks to scatter minions of evil like skittles. As rousing and inventive as Kong’s triple-T-Rex face-off, this multi-million-dollar flume ride is — with apologies — barrels of fun. And to consider that at this stage in the previous movie, the dwarves were still loading the dishwasher.
While An Unexpected Journey had plenty of bucolic charm, it did, for a Middle-earth film, feel oddly inconsequential. The Desolation Of Smaug remedies that. Moody, urgent and, for want of a better word, Ringsier, it’s a much more satisfying film. If anything, it dispenses with early events with something coming impatience: Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), the aforementioned bear-man, is left behind before we’ve really had an opportunity to love his peculiar brand of beastly intensity (even though undoubtedly he’ll be back to claw up villains in the Battle Of Five Armies), and the same goes for Mirkwood’s hallucinatory boughs, which have the company tripping balls in an endless of entertaining ways.
One issue with the last movie was that it re-trod too closely the footsteps of the Fellowship: it was hard to share Bilbo’s awe at coming to Rivendell, considered that we’d already been there 11 years before. Here, you can feel Jackson’s relief at having entirely new worlds in which to play. The forest domain of the Silvan Elves has beauty completed with danger, plus it gives Lee Pace (brilliant as the dagger-eyed Thranduil) a wonderful elk-horned throne. But the real standouts are Lake-town and Erebor, contrasting but equally stunning showcases of production design. The old, a fog-shrouded, Dickensian burg that we’re said “stinks of fish oil and tar”, is a new, pleasantly earthy flavour for Middle-earth.
Like Edoras in The Two Towers, it was largely built for real and bristles with detail. Erebor, the kingdom-under-the-mountain, on the other hand, is the sort of insane location that could only exist on a Weta mega-computer, its centrepiece a stash of wealth so big it would give Scrooge McDuck a quacking fit. As Bilbo (a still spot-on Martin Freeman) and co. near their destination, the film gets increasingly busy, splitting the group in two and intercutting between those strands and Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who’s off poking around the ruins of Dol Guldur.
That plot still hasn’t really caught fire (it basically contributes to the wizard yelling at a giant, evil ink-blot), and it could be argued that more screentime might have been efficiently given to the dwarves, who stay largely anonymous. Besides Thorin (Richard Armitage), whose facade of nobility is beginning to crumble, revealing baser motives beneath, the only one who gets much attention is Kili (Aidan Turner), vying with a returning Legolas (Orlando Bloom) for the attentions of auburn-haired elf ninja Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). As love triangles carry on, it’s quite rote — and might have been more dramatic were Kili not the one dwarf who looks like an elf anyway — yet Tauriel, a character created for the movie who’s already got some Tolkienites raging, fits seamlessly into the world and gets to execute many pleasingly brutal orc-kills: at points, the movie’s one arrow-in-the-head away from turning into The Raid.
Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage bring good sleaze in their short appearances as Lake-town’s venal Master and his help, Alfrid. Luke Evans is surprisingly Welsh as hero-in-waiting Bard The Bowman. But the standout new character is, predictably, the titular beast. He’s portrayed Khan; now Benedict Cumberbatch evokes Shere Khan for his performance (vocal and mo-cap) as the blazing-eyed, sweet-voiced, spike-helmed “serpent of the north”. We’ve seen many a dragon on screen before, but nothing with this much personality: Smaug is a startlingly well-executed creation, toggling between arrogance, indolence and rage as he uses his wyrm-tongue to try to draw out Bilbo. And once he does, the movie kicks into full throttle for an intense, half-hour finale that threatens to destruct the mountain itself. It’s Jackson once more at the top of his game; God knows what he has in store for part three.
Middle-earth’s got its mojo back. A major improvement on the last instalment, this takes our adventurers into raw territory and brings spectacle by the ton. And in case you were wondering, yes, someone manages to say the title as dialogue.