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The Desolation of Smaug: How to portray your dragon

The second film in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy is a revelation - which shows a director in command of his medium, and offers a succinct answer to his critics.

Martin Freeman.
Butterfly effect: Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in the sumptuous Hobbit sequel.

The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug (12A)
dir: Peter Jackson

Cliffhangers have no more currency in modern culture than hand-cranked gramophones. What use could there possibly be in deferred pleasure when our viewing habits are shaped by a demand for gratification that is ongoing and ubiquitous? This is said not in a curmudgeonly spirit – let he who has never binge-watched whole series of Breaking Bad or Louie cast the first stone. But haute cuisine served at fast-food speeds is the least we expect.

In this context, the staggered appearance of the three parts of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Hobbit begins to look both antiquated and revolutionary. You wonder what young audiences must make of the narrative limbo at the end of The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey, released a year ago, and now its follow-up. Perhaps their eyes search the cinema screen instinctively for that clock that counts down in the corner of the Netflix frame as the next episode is cued.

The first face shown in the new film is Jackson himself, who can be glimpsed gnawing on a root vegetable. If this is a gag on the idea that he has bitten off more than he can chew, then the joke is not on him but his critics. Extracting three movies from the same number of Lord of the Rings books was one thing. Squeezing three movies from its single-volume predecessor smacks of hubris. But the results fail to support this reading. The Desolation of Smaug shows a film-maker in command of his medium, balancing mythic weight and delicate detail.

Previously on The Hobbit: a band of dwarves set out to reclaim their kingdom, Erebor, steered by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). It was at his suggestion that they enlisted Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a harrumphing, diminutive chap dressed in 50 shades of beige and one of the few movie heroes required to comb his feet.

In the new film, the group reaches the Lonely Mountain, where an opponent to their campaign lies in the shape of a dragon so enormous that the logical answer to the question, “Where is he?” must be: everywhere. For a director working on the largest of budgets, Jackson knows all about economising. He keeps Smaug under wraps until the final half-hour or so, introducing him via subtle disturbances in the dense, deep blanket of gold coins beneath which he is snoozing. Jackson rations the revelation of wonder, withholding it until the last moment. By the time Smaug rises, the coins raining off him like slot-machine jackpots, half the work of the effects boffins has already been done through the whetting of appetite. Anticipation is one effect that never ceases to be special.

Benedict Cumberbatch provides the gloating voice of Smaug and it’s easy to see him in the dragon’s joyless smile. It’s so wide it would take hours to trek from one corner of his mouth to the other, so deep it must have been chiselled there for generations like a gravestone inscription or a family grudge. But then Jackson always makes us feel the human and the tactile within the artificial. He and his crew are attuned to controlling mood through colour and texture; one coup here is the wistful landscape of autumnal treetops, peppered with powder-blue leaves that transpire to be butterflies, through which Bilbo pokes his head while fleeing an arachnid attack in the forest below.

Not that “arachnid attack” quite covers the giant bulbous spiders with black bowling-ball eyes, clacking limbs and glutinous mouths. Like Spielberg in his prime, Jackson clears space within horror for the comic and the sumptuous. The 3D photography invites us to view the cocooned dwarves through rips in the quivering walls of web, as though we are craning at peepholes in an icky art installation. There is also a visual riff on the nasty childhood pastime of pulling the legs off spiders. It’s not cruel, you see, if the victims are many times the size of their tormentors.

Now that CGI can conjure up anything, the challenge to film-makers is to increase their inventiveness. Jackson rises effortlessly to that. A battle that pits dwarves and elves against the scrunch-faced, Goya-esque Orcs, staged in, over and alongside a ferociously rushing river, is the most purely thrilling set piece Jackson has directed. The camera stays mainly in the water as the dwarves are rushed along in their barrels – all those sopping wet beards give you an idea of what it would be like to accompany ZZ Top on the rapids at Center Parcs.

It isn’t just the sequence’s screwball velocity that impresses, but Jackson’s continuing grasp of clarity within chaos; he never loses his precision or his taste for rambunctious fun. One dynamic composition shows an arrow fired towards us from the background penetrating the side of an orc’s head in the foreground, so that its protruding tip pokes us in the eye.

Martin Freeman provides the movie’s counterpointing gentleness. Films of this size require conspiratorial performers and he is one of the subtlest. Listen to his pauses, each one a pocket of pathos, as he tries to make a confession to Gandalf. Watch his posture as he affects nonchalance, lifting a dainty finger to his chin while Smaug stirs behind him. It is Freeman who delivers the movie’s sign-off line, “What have we done?” Oh, you know, only restored the archaic tease of the cliffhanger and brought to the modern fantasy film the sweep of David Lean. That’s all. Like Bilbo, it’s no biggie.