The director has once again delivered a humorous and enthralling (read: downright entertaining) adventure in Middle-earth with rich characters, sharp visuals, and an epic storyline.
Part two of Peter Jackson's Middle-earth prequel trilogy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, picks up right after the events of An Unexpected Journey (read our review) as Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and his company of dwarves continue their journey to the Lonely Mountain. Pursued by a horde of Orcs commanded by the ruthless Azog, Bilbo and his friends have no choice but to brave the dangers of Mirkwood - a dense and dangerous forest where even the most valiant and skilled warriors can become lost to darkness.
However, just as the company is about to enter the twisted tree line, Gandalf is called away on an important mission of his own (to investigate the growing Necromancer threat at Dol Guldur), leaving the hobbit and dwarves to continue on without assistance from the wizard. Undeterred, Thorin leads his companions onto the forest trail, refocusing on the mission at hand: reach the Lonely Mountain and recover the Arkenstone from Smaug, the cunning and deadly dragon that drove the dwarves from their home and fortunes in Erebor 150 years ago.
When it was first announced that Jackson intended to make not just two, but three, full length films out of The Hobbit (a roughly 300 page book), fans were quick to decry the new trilogy as a bloated cash grab. Adding fuel to the argument, the first entry in the series was largely considered to be too long - with only a few memorable moments capable of living up to the eye-popping spectacle depicted in the Lord of the Rings movies. Fortunately, The Desolation of Smaug proves that any shortcomings in the first chapter were worth the trouble - as both The Hobbit storyline and larger pre-Lord of the Rings plot are smartly woven together in service of a more exciting and emotional viewing experience. Still, considering that each of Jackson's Middle-earth movies have presented a solid balance of comedy, action, character, and heart, The Desolation of Smaug isn't an overwhelming step-up for the already strong franchise, but it does contain some especially impressive elements (most notably, the titular dragon).
As in the prior entry, Jackson takes a lot of story liberties in his follow-up - some of which will likely irk die-hard fans of the book series (especially when re-imagining significant moments in the third act). Yet, even though the interweaving narrative will make it easier to engage a diverse range of audience members, The Desolation of Smaug, much like An Unexpected Journey, is a lengthy time investment (with a 161 minute runtime) - one that could have easily been trimmed.
At this point, given that we've only seen two-thirds of a planned trilogy, it's unclear whether many of Jackson's more divisive tangents and added material will be worth the effort (as well as screen time) by the conclusion of There and Back Again, but moment to moment, the filmmaker successfully presents significantly more rounded portrayals of important Hobbit elements - especially in the case of key supporting Smaug players. The expansive approach to the source material story serves Jackson's cinematic medium and the current movie - even if the written text is much smaller and more straightforward - since the director delivers enthralling and humorous action set pieces, enjoyable implementation of fan-favorite Middle-earth characters, as well as intriguing connections to the larger Lord of the Rings storyline.
Freeman, McKellen, and Armitage are just as good in the follow-up as they were in the first and a few of the dwarves are also given a more prominent role this round - most notably Kili (Aidan Turner) and Balin (Ken Scott), who are instrumental in selling a pair of especially character-focused moments (moments that exemplify Jackson's efforts in presenting his supporting cast as more than just sidekicks to the main heroes). There are also plenty of new cast members in part two, with Luke Evans (Fast & Furious 6) presenting a charming take on Bard the Bowman, who will be fleshed-out even further in the final installment. Jackson also makes smart use of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), exploring the Fellowship of the Ring member's backstory as the son of the Elvenking, Thranduil (Lee Pace). While the character did not directly factor into The Hobbit book, his inclusion in The Desolation of Smaug is a major highlight - as Bloom portrays a slightly naive variation of the iconic hero as well as enjoys several over-the-top, but very exciting, action scenes.
Similarly, Chief of the Guards for the Elvenking, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a character that was invented entirely by Jackson and screenwriter Fran Walsh, is an immediate standout. The Elf (not to mention actress) steals several scenes away from established players (including Legolas) and is, without question, one of the more successful of Jackson's additions to The Hobbit narrative. That said, it'll be interesting to see how the filmmaker handles Tauriel in the third chapter, since her dynamic with a semi-smitten Legolas borders on melodrama at times, and could weaken Bloom's beloved character in the long run.
Smaug was teased at the end of An Unexpected Journey and, thankfully, the final onscreen version is worth the wait. The combined efforts of Weta Digital and actor Benedict Cumberbatch (who voiced Smaug as well as provided motion capture for the dragon's facial animations) result in one of the most believable fantasy creatures ever put to film. The sheer scale and detail of the dragon, set against a labyrinth of gold coins, jewels, and other dwarf treasures, is a treat for the eyes - one that is made even better by Cumberbatch's snarly and coy voice acting. Anyone who might have been concerned that the Smaug/Bilbo meeting would be glossed over in favor of blockbuster action set pieces, will be relieved to hear that Jackson dedicates a decent amount of time to their interplay - which might even, for some, rival Gollum's "Riddles in the Dark" sequence as one of the best scenes in this Hobbit film trilogy.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is once again playing as both 3D and 3D HFR (High Frame Rate) premium presentations. In general, the 3D is shot for depth not pop-out gimmicks, and aside from a distracting sequence with a honey bee flying at the screen, most of the third-dimension effect is used for subtle immersion. Several 3D shots of Smaug help sell the scope of the beast, and are worth the added up-charge alone, but viewers who are expecting in-your-face "3D moments" might still be underwhelmed with their final return on investment. As for HFR, the same pluses and minuses apply again - so make sure to read our article on The Hobbit's use of 48 FPS 3D to help make an informed decision before seeking out an HFR-ready theater.
J. R. R. Tolkien purists will likely have more than a few qualms with Jackson's second chapter in The Hobbit film series; however, as a movie experience, the director has once again delivered a humorous and enthralling (read: downright entertaining) adventure in Middle-earth with rich characters, sharp visuals, and an epic storyline. Time will tell whether all of the added narrative material pays off when The Hobbit: There and Back Again opens in theaters on December 17th 2014, but in the meantime, it's encouraging to see Jackson is committed to presenting an impactful version of The Hobbit book for the moviegoing medium - even if it means the director has to stand by a few especially controversial changes.
If you’re still on the fence about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, check out the trailer below:
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug runs 161 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images. Now playing in 2D, 3D, and 3D HFR theaters.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. If you’ve seen the movie and want to discuss details about the film without worrying about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, please head over to our Desolation of Smaug Spoilers Discussion.
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.
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