With: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch
Runtime: 161 minutes
THE first part of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy was officially subtitled An Unexpected Journey, but a more accurate handle would have been An Awfully Boring Adventure as a pack of dwarves took forever to get nowhere. Up hill and down dale they went, spouting gibberish and sporting beards.
And lo, a great sleep descended on the kingdom and its cinema audiences, and wise men wondered if Jackson's ambition, like the very ring itself, had not drained him of all entertainment-making power. Would the second instalment, as in The Lord Of The Rings, find the master back on the path? Would light triumph against dark? And would we be any closer to understanding how he manages to get dwarves and freakishly tall elves in the one shot?
Yes, yes, and no. The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (that is "sm-ow-g", not "smog", in case you want to appear in the know) is a far better picture. At 161 minutes there is the usual siege-like length to endure, and yet more rivers of Tolkienesque blether to traverse, and if you simply cannot bear anything Hobbity this one is not for you either.
But, in its favour, the film has the great good fortune to feature Martin Freeman coming into his own as Bilbo Baggins, Everyhobbit of Middle Earth, and, wait for it, a spectacular beast. Pause here for Jackson aficionados to pump fists into air. Jackson, as we know from his terrific remake of King Kong, gives good monster.
There is nothing to remember from the first instalment because not a lot happened. When Desolation opens, the dwarves are still on the road and still girning. Enter Gandalf to give the picture purpose. To win back their homeland, Gandalf tells the leader of the dwarves, he and his band of men must retrieve the Arkenstone, a magical gem. Sounds a do-able enough task, but it rather depends on who or what is guarding the treasure.
The Rings and Hobbit pictures are nothing without a clear quest being laid down, and suddenly we have one. As ever, getting from A to B is not a simple matter of booking easyJet. There are always mountains in the way and, crucially, there is never a short cut. If one ever doubts the quasi-religious element to Tolkien's books, Jackson's pictures are never shy in reminding you of it.
The dwarves have Bilbo Baggins in tow to help them retrieve the Arkenstone. This is partly because he is small and nimble, and therefore makes a nifty burglar, but mostly because he is possessed of the ring, with its ability to render him invisible. This comes in dashed handy as a sort of "get out of jail" card when any fight sequences look like going on forever.
Not that one minds in some instances. Jackson choreographs some superb rammies, including one where a dwarf in a barrel pinballs among a horde of orcs, sending them all ways. The hand of Harold Lloyd himself must have been on Jackson's shoulder for that one. Similarly, there is a duel between light and dark that is as graceful as a ballet. As with quests, the pictures are not worth a spit without spectacle, here rendered in 3D, and Jackson has only just begun.
Desolation finds Bilbo a different Hobbit from the Nervous Nellie he was in the first picture. Possessed of the ring, he has found his courage. Or vice versa.
Either way, he is bolder than before. Only slightly, though. Freeman's comedy bones come into their own here, transforming him from brave lion to cowardly kitten in the quiver of a voice or the nervous blinking of an eye. He is an imperfect hero, the easiest kind to root for.
Jackson, once again on screenwriting duties with Fran Walsh, Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) and Philippa Boyens, has lots to throw in the pot before he reaches his third act, including a brief stay in Laketown, a watery, miserable hovel ruled by Stephen Fry. Yes, dominating TV Earth and Radio Earth clearly was not enough for the Fryster, who just had to pop up in Middle Earth as well. Though heavily costumed, Fry plays the part he always plays, that of Stephen Fry. No surprise there, then.
The surprises come courtesy of what lies within the mountain that contains the Arkenstone. Jackson handles the big reveal with the sure hand of the cinematic magician, teasing out the mystery and the terror as long as possible. Here is the object of that huge pile of portents that has built up as the picture has rumbled along. "War is coming"; "Death will come to all"; "The world is in grave danger"; and so on. It is never difficult to distinguish between a ray of sunshine and a Tolkien tale.
The promise of wrath and bleakness to come holds good as Bilbo and his band come face to face with the titular Smaug. And with that the stage is set, suddenly and gloriously, for part three. What was once a threat of boredom to come now has the precious glister of a promise. All that and Billy Connolly too.