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The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug, the second movie adaption in Peter Jackson’s three-part movie, features Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and the 13 dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) continuing their journey to claim back the Lonely Mountain and the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor.
This quest includes the company entangled with Elves (including Orlando Bloom’s Legolas), hunted by Azog and his Orcs, facing a skin-changer named Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), fighting giant spiders, and visiting Laketown (whose inhabitants find Bard the Bowman, played by Luke Evans, and the town’s shifty Master, portrayed by Stephen Fry).
However, the gang’s greatest threat comes from the titular Smaug, the huge dragon who has resided in the Lonely Mountain, sleeping in the dwarves’ hoard of gold, ever since he destroyed Erebor years before. Our heroes must kill Smaug if they’re to win back the kingdom, but their attempt to do so also risks tragic consequences.
At the same time, Gandalf realized that there is an even bigger evil hiding in Middle-earth when he comes across The Necromancer of Dol Guldur — the first signal of the return of Sauron, the villain of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Benedict Cumberbatch performs and voices both Smaug and the Necromancer.)
The cast finds Lee Pace playing Legolas’ father, the Elvenking Thranduil, and Evangeline Lilly playing Tauriel, a female elf created for the film. Sylvester McCoy returns as the wizard Radagast, while the dwarves are again played by Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Stephen Hunter, William Kircher, Graham McTavish, Dean O’Gorman, and last but not least, Aidan Turner.
To start off: The Desolation of Smaug is much better and funnier than the previous chapter, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This movie moves along at a fast pace, upping the action and the suspense in a fashion the walking-and-talking first movie often failed to. Everything just works better this time out: the battles, the character interplay, the visual effects, the tone, and the energy. If you were wary of returning to Middle-earth after An Unexpected Journey, fear not; The Desolation of Smaug is a superior Hobbit movie in every way.
For a film almost three hours long, The Desolation of Smaug hauls ass from the start to the end, from its Western-style flashback early scenes to its serial-like ending. The movie’s brisk movement mostly works, though there are a few hiccups and strange, choppy editorial choices around the time we meet Beorn that mar that almost perfect pace. When the end credits finally roll, you truly are left wanting more (and, no, I won’t tell you what scene it ends on even if you have read the book).
The Desolation of Smaug features a lot of material either invented by the screenwriters — Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro — or culled from J.R.R. Tolkien’s supplemental materials and notes. Perhaps it’s precisely since this movie is liberated from simply reenacting the familiar beats from the classic book and embraces creative license to invent, extend, and explore that it seems more dynamic and alive than the first Hobbit. It’s as if Jackson just wanted to make an entertaining film here rather than a painstaking recreation of the source material.
Among the additions brought by Jackson and his crew is a budding romance between Tauriel the elf and Kili the dwarf, a subplot that plays less hokey than you might fear. The relationship without any doubt blooms quickly, but I guess when you’re the only charming dwarf in Middle-earth and the only hot chick Orlando Bloom’s not really into then you move fast. Lily rocks as the beautiful, but deadly Tauriel, who serves as the captain of the Elvenking’s guard.
Tauriel and Legolas show off their equally stunning ass-kicking skills in a number of action sequences, the best of which is the barrel scene. Instead of just having Bilbo and the dwarves flow down river in empty wine barrels, Jackson has them pursued by both Orcs and Legolas and Tauriel, who finds themselves defending those who were just their prisoners from a mutual enemy. Fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy recall that Legolas had some very sick moves and kills in those movies, and the same can be found in The Desolation of Smaug.
We also get to see more of Bilbo in action here, from his trouble with giant spiders to his encounter with Smaug. We also get a better sense of the negative effects the One Ring is already beginning to have on him. Freeman once again nails the precise balance between humor and drama here, befuddlement and courage.
This time around, there are a few more shades to Thorin as we see his increased single-mindedness and the tragic consequences it will incur. Among the rest of the dwarves, Balin is once again the gang’s conscience, while the aforementioned Kili gets the most to do courtesy of his interaction with Tauriel. The others are still thumbnail sketches instead of full characters, but they serve their overall function well enough.
Evans shows up late in the game as Bard the Bowman, a decent everyman in an otherwise crummy town and the story’s only other noble human character besides Gandalf. (EDIT: I was wrong. Gandalf is one of the Maiar.) Evans certainly looks like a 1940s swashbuckler, but we don’t really get to see Bard in action much here. Fry is nearly unrecognizable as the Master of Laketown, who, similar to the Goblin King, is a corrupt ruler who has grown fat from his own excess. Lee Pace shows cold majesty as the aloof (and sometimes deadly) Thranduil, while Mikael Persbrandt has a short, but memorable turn as Beorn.
Still, it’s actually Cumberbatch who gets the greatest bragging rights amongst the supporting cast and new faces. His rich baritone gives Smaug a gravitas and regal bearing befitting the legendary beast. (Cumberbatch’s other role as the Necromancer is really more of a visual effect here so perhaps it will pay off more in the next film.) Unsurprisingly, the teasers have revealed only a tiny bit of what Smaug is like. There really haven’t been a lot of great film dragons, but Jackson and WETA have built a doozy here in Smaug. Nearly the entire last half-hour or so is the company’s action-packed confrontation with Smaug so you’re in for a helluva show.
The film’s 3D is fine, certainly better than it was in the last film but there were a few points where it becomes distracting (such as the ever-present bees at Beorn’s home). Still, seeing Smaug in 3D action was a delight. Thankfully, I did not screen this movie in 48 frames-per-second (it is available in that format, but I’m not fool enough to fall for that crap again).
The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug is a rollicking piece of classic entertainment, much better than its predecessor technically and dramatically. It atones for the rather lackluster first film, and generates excitement for next concluding chapter of the trilogy, The Hobbit: There And Back Again.