The climax of this journey is of course Bilbo's highly anticipated encounter with the dragon Smaug who claims ownership of the hallowed, deserted galleries of the Lonely Mountain's once-majestic halls. It's here that Bilbo takes centre stage and relies on intelligence rather than brawn. Played - or rather voiced - by Benedict Cumberbatch, the reunion of Sherlock's double act sparkles with the type of explosive chemistry you'd expect from a familiar pairing - the dragon Smaug's smug, joyless smile interchangeable with Cumberbatch's mischievous portrayal of Conan Doyle's infamous detective. After the slow plodding of its precursor, the introduction of Smaug, and Bard the boatmen are welcome inclusions, finally bestowing us with characters sculptured and forged from Tolkien's prose for Bilbo to encounter.
However, whilst The Desolation of Smaug is a marked improvement on the mediocre An Unexpected Journey, Jackson appears to have yielded to the paradigms of contemporary fantasy, padding out this tale with a barrage of stunts and excessively lengthy fight scenes. Ultimately, this reliance on spectacle impedes the stories organic evolution - one that's already hampered by somewhat shapeless characters and a disappointing preference for CGI over traditional effects. These scenes mean this middle chapter feels like a film that's constantly trying to furnish and justify its three-film, nine-hour runtime. As a litmus test for Jackson's final instalment, The Desolation of Smaug shines a propitious stream of optimism onto a franchise that looked to be lost in a sea of mediocrity.
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