The reduced scale also frees Jackson, to some degree, from Middle Earth’s tedious inner workings – the politics, the names of this warrior and that and their fathers from the Houses of [insert big, gibbery-sounding fantasy names] and so on.
Such fantastical touches can help add to the escapist enjoyment of a film like this, but they can also greatly detract from the overall effect, bogging the viewer down with alien-sounding names and places and words. Whether intentional or no, Jackson largely frees himself from that burden here.
Then there’s the dragon.
I’ve never seen anything quite like him put to film. Cumberbatch’s voice work on this great, scaly, digital delight is superb – at once slithery and silky, mesmerizing and terrifying. Bilbo, as the thief of his band of dwarves, is sent into the Lonely Mountain alone to retrieve a great magical jewel that will, supposedly, enable Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to defeat Smaug (Oakenshield is the rightful heir to the dwarven throne).
Martin’s chemistry with Cumberbatch is compelling, and they’ve got a solid script upon which to base their banter. The scenes between them work so well that I’m largely looking forward to the trilogy’s concluding chapter – December’s “There and Back Again” – just for the chance to spend more time with this beast.
“Smaug” is an atypical, typical Jacksonian Tolkien adaptation. Most of the familiar elements fans expect are present, but they’re used more efficiently, with storytelling and pacing that’s more streamlined.
By scaling things back a bit, Jackson finally manages to grab hold and sweep the viewer away — least THIS viewer — in a fashion he’s never quite achieved with previous trips to Middle Earth. As a result, “The Desolation of Smaug” is nearly three hours of escapist pleasure that’s apt to leave moviegoers wanting to linger a bit longer in Middle Earth.
Rating: Howl-and-a-half (***1/2)
Contact: Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011; firstname.lastname@example.org