The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an improvement on its predecessor An Unexpected Journey in almost every way. Not that Tolkien purists will walk away satisfied, mind you; many of the complaints leveled against the first film in Peter Jackson’s trilogy may be buoyed by the dragon-studded sequel. Still, it's undoubtedly more enjoyable, if only on a visceral level.
The Desolation of Smaug begins right where Bilbo Baggins and the Company of Dwarves left off: on the run from danger and in pursuit of the Lonely Mountain. The White Orc Azog's minions continue to hunt the Dwarves, all the way through the deadly forest of Mirkwood and down the river to man-dwelling Lake-town. And somewhere out there, unknown to Thorin's traveling band, an even darker force continues to grow in power, with only Gandalf the Grey in a position to stop it.
The journey takes the Dwarves to their intended destination of Erebor, and ever closer to Thorin's prize, the Arkenstone. But in order to reclaim the kingdom and attain the treasure he so desperately seeks, Thorin needs to find a way to overcome the slumbering sky-serpent Smaug — and he has just the Hobbit for the job.
A word of warning: The film hits the ground running, so much so that you'll be lost rather quickly if the events of An Unexpected Journey aren't fresh in your mind. Still, the pacing makes sense, as the central characters are, for the most part, all introduced by now. It remains difficult at times to keep track of who's who among the Dwarves, but the party's pivotal players get their time in the spotlight — most especially Kili (or Sexy Dwarf, as I like to call him), played by Aidan Turner.
Lost in the shuffle is Bilbo himself. Martin Freeman continues to do great work with the role, but there’s a greater scope this time around, a wider lens that captures more than An Unexpected Journey ever managed. As a result, Bilbo's journey doesn't feel as clearly defined as it did last time. But the screen time that Bilbo does have, he absolutely dominates, thanks in large to his relationship with the One Ring. In the previous film, Bilbo claimed his "precious" from Gollum, and the ramifications are very much at play in The Desolation of Smaug, leading to some fun surprises in the visual storytelling, and in Freeman's performance.
However, as far as visibility goes, Freeman makes Ian McKellen look like air. Desolation is a letdown for Gandalf fans, as the Grey Wizard appears in only a handful of scenes, off on his own for the vast majority of the run time. That's as it is in the source material (albeit with new scenes added, tied to the Necromancer plot pulled from Tolkien's appendices), but it's disappointing that Gandalf only shows up here and there for a storyline that doesn't advance all that much from where we left it in An Unexpected Journey.
Those disappointments aside, there's a lot to love about this film, especially when it comes to the new faces. Mikael Persbrandt plays the skin-changer Beorn; he's only in a small portion of the movie, but he makes an impression.
The Elves, however, make an even greater impact. As Legolas, Orlando Bloom delivers his best on-screen role since, well, Legolas. It's great to have him back, stuffing arrows in Orcs’ faces on the regular. He's accompanied by an alluring Lee Pace as his father Thranduil, the Elvenking, as well as Tauriel, played by Lost veteran Evangeline Lilly. Some fans complained about the casting of Lilly, and groused that Tauriel doesn't exist in the source material. For Tolkien purists, there’s likely no budging on the second issue. But as for the first? Lilly all but steals the show as Tauriel, giving Legolas a serious run for his money in the "holy wow that's badass" department. She's a terrific character to watch.
The humans of Lake-town come into play later in The Desolation of Smaug, led by Stephen Fry as the town's Master, and Luke Evans as
Aragorn Lite Bard the Bowman. Both actors do admirable jobs, but pale in comparison to the elegant Elves. But even they can’t hold a candle to Smaug.
It takes nearly two hours to get there, but once the titular dragon enters the picture, it's on. Smaug is a force to be reckoned with, brought to terrifying life by Weta Workshop and actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who lent his voice and motion-capture talents to the role. He is, in a word, glorious. He slithers and slides with sinister swagger, his belly full of arrogance and fire. Cumberbatch snarls out every line of dialogue, venom in his burnt-black voice. Smaug more than earns his spot in the title, even if most of the film passes before he arrives.
Beyond the speed of the story and the characters at play, The Desolation of Smaug's strongest suit is the action. Jackson knows how to construct a compelling fight scene, as any Lord of the Rings fan already knows. The spirit and complexity of those epic battles are on full display here, especially during the Mirkwood portions. Admittedly, the Smaug battle gets a little long in the tooth after a while, but never at the expense of the dragon's majesty.
Still, this film won't win over anyone who didn't enjoy An Unexpected Journey. Maybe it's easier to stomach because the first 30 minutes aren't spent on dinner at Bilbo's house. Maybe it's easier to love because the Mirkwood forest gets so deadly so quickly. It's faster and flashier, no doubt about it, but it takes as many leaps from Tolkien's original narrative as the first film. If that was an insurmountable problem for you before, well, the problem remains. But if you wish for nothing more than to meander through Middle-earth while watching some colorful characters hack and slash at each other, all set to an epic Howard Shore score, then your expectations are exactly where they should be.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens Friday.