Rewarding – if you battle through all the way to end

Cert PG | By Melissa York
Three Stars

THE DESOLATION of Smaug opens in a tavern a year before An Unexpected Journey (the first instalment). It’s here that Gandalf the Grey bumps into Thorin Oakenshield, the would-be king of dwarves, and convinces him to steal the precious Arkenstone from underneath a fire-breathing dragon in the Lonely Mountain to reunite the lost Kingdom of Erebor. If this sounds like a foreign language, you won’t enjoy two hours and forty minutes of it. Go home and watch the first one. Or just go home.

The Hobbit, a 300-page children’s novel, does not equal three films. Tolkien is so verbose he just about fits walking, lunch, and a song into 100 pages so the narrative has to be bulked out with drawn-out battle scenes.

This is less tedious than it sounds because Peter Jackson really knows how to direct a battle scene. One thrilling set piece sees dwarves in barrels battle orcs while being thrashed about by river rapids. Legolas even pulls out his signature move – skateboarding on things that aren’t skateboards – in a nod to the battle of Helm’s Deep.

But the best performance is saved till last for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug, a thundering beast of a dragon who you believe has fire in his belly before you even see it glowing. The scale of Jackson’s vision is as grandiose as ever and the golden caves underneath the Mountain are particularly cavernous in 3D.

The problem with middle films – ones that are sandwiched in a trilogy or series – is that they often struggle to stand alone because they exist to set up conflict for the finale. But The Desolation of Smaug manages to be action-packed and more fast-paced than its predecessor by replacing a lot of the folklore with fighting. While this sequel manages to outpace its predecessor, there are only so many near misses and beheadings you can take before you ask, “Are they there yet?”