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Dominic Corry: The genius of Smaug

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Movie blogger Dominic Corry says Smaug is the best dragon to ever hit the big screen.
The dragon Smaug is possibly one of the most impressive parts of 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug'.
The dragon Smaug is possibly one of the most impressive parts of 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug'.

This week's new release The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug effectively addresses the complaints some had about the last year's Hobbit movie - it's a much faster-paced film, and features plenty of welcome darkness.

But the most impressive part of the movie is undoubtedly the dragon Smaug.

Smaug sets a bold new standard for dragons in movies, and is leagues ahead of its most significant antecedents. Dragons have always held such tantalising promise in the world of cinema, and now that promise has been fulfilled like never before.

The Smaug-centric final third of the film contains some of the most boundary-pushing fantasy action set-pieces ever committed to screen - I was wholly transfixed; utterly enthralled and mightily impressed.

The execution of Smaug is in its own way just as significant a step forward in digital special effects as Gollum was in 2002's The Two Towers. Gollum was the first time a fully digital character managed to come across as just that - a character.

There had been previous attempts, but never before Gollum had a bunch of zeroes and ones actually translated into such a fully-rounded figure that engendered such empathy and provoked such disgust - he demanded an emotional reaction.

There have been impressive-looking dragons in movies before, but none have ever made their presence felt so strongly as a character. Smaug is not simply a picture of unfettered evil like the Balrog (or Sauron for that matter), but a relatively nuanced figure with identifiable emotions - pride and greed being the most prominent.

It's extremely rare for creatures of such an enormous scale, dragons or otherwise, to convey any kind of emotional reasonance. Smaug not only becomes a fully formed character, he gets to revel in dramatic irony while exchanging banter with Martin Freeman's Bilbo.

Smaug's lithe, serpent-like physicality is palpable - his movements are fluid, but never weightless. With the action occurring deep inside the Lonely Mountain, seeing Smaug stomp about in the dark can't help but evoke the underrated 1981 fantasy film Dragonslayer.

Smaug shares the basic design of that film's cave-bound dragon (named 'Vermithrax') in that he has two hind legs, and forearms that form part of his wings. This style is also present in the dragons created for the 2002's Reign of Fire and 2007's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

It is a design that stands in contrast to the 'four legs plus wings' style employed by the 1996 film Dragonheart and the 2006 turd Eragon. These kind of dragons have reduced menace and look too much like dogs with wings.

Smaug, on the other hand, feels like something that could actually evolve out of an organic universe. There's a tangible slitheriness to his appearance that outdoes any movie dragon that has come before.

As magnificent as he looks, his appearance isn't the best thing about him.

Indeed, the coolest aspect of Smaug is the one I was most fearful about ahead of time - the way in which he talks. When Smaug speaks (in Benedict Cumberbatch's ominous intonations), his lips recede and curl to form the individual words.

This method was employed to famously detrimental effect in the aforementioned Dragonheart, where the agile human-ish lips of the dragon (named Draco) contorted unnaturally to fit around Sean Connery's voice performance. It compromised the suspension of disbelief around Draco and undermined the entire movie.

The decision to make Smaug physically vocalise his communications was clearly one that Jackson and his special effects team did not take lightly - Jackson himself has cited Dragonheart's Draco as an example of how wrong this sort of thing can go.

The production repeatedly refused to take an official stance on how Smaug would communicate. Even after we got our first glimpse of Smaug's face in the trailer released in June, it still wasn't entirely clear if we would see his lips move or not.

I maintained a belief that having a dragon speak in this manner simply could not work. I thought the smarter thing to do would be to have him communicate psychically or something. Then I saw The Desolation of Smaug and realised how wrong I was - it works amazingly well, and plays a huge role in making Smaug such a memorable character. The CGI here is simply astounding.

The unique head/face design of Smaug helps - his mouth extends right up the side of his cheeks to just underneath his eyes, lending his face the long descending lines that I associate with the smirk of classic Disney cartoon villain. This element of stylisation (as opposed to giving Smaug a Draco-like simian mouth) enhances the vocal animations to no end. I was also quite taken by the Komodo dragon-esque floppy skin on the under side of his jaw.

The Smaug-centric action is another thing entirely - never before has creature action of this scale been so intimately urgent and so creatively varied. I cannot wait to watch this again.

With Smaug, Jackson has once again demonstrated why he is the ultimate movie-fan-turned-movie-maker - the splendid horror of the creature's execution could only have been ensured by someone who'd paid an inordinate amount of attention to every other dragon that has ever graced the silver screen.

As a representative of every kid who ever teared-up over the death of a Harryhausen creature, he is doing a very fine job.

It is this aspect of Jackson's films - the direct evocation of his undying passion for fantasy cinema as a viewer - that I appreciate the most. And it is in full effect in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

* Love movie dragons? Amped for Smaug? Seen the film? Liked Smaug? Comment below!

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