While The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was widely criticized for its leisurely pace and rather uneventful nature – these films are, after all, only one-third of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel, and don’t contain complete narrative arcs the same way the Lord of the Rings films do – I really dug the relaxed atmosphere and easygoing tone.
Desolation of Smaug, on the other hand, provides something of a response to critics of the first film: opening and closing with two enormous – and lengthy – action setpieces, and containing a good deal of running, chasing, and fighting in-between, this is an exciting, action-packed middle installment in the trilogy that never feels as long as its 161-minute running time.
It also finally gets to the titular dragon, Smaug, who is not just a CGI monster but a fully-realized character, immaculately designed and terrifyingly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who gets to share some perverse banter with his Sherlock costar Martin Freeman, as Bilbo Baggins. Freeman, perfectly cast in the role, is still great this time around – the film really shines whenever he’s onscreen.
Smaug may not have much in the way of backstory or motivation, but he’s a dominating presence nonetheless, toying with Bilbo and chasing the dwarves through Erebor in the film’s most memorable sequence. As a villain, the character is a big step up from the first film’s lineup of disposable Orcs, who are back in full force this time around, led by the CGI-realized Azog and Bolg.
If there’s one real failing here, it’s that of character: while Bilbo Baggins had a genuine arc in the first film, there’s not so much of that going on here – besides the internal struggle with the ring, familiar territory from the LOTR movies. In fact, Bilbo seems to have considerably less screen time this time around, as some of the supporting characters take center stage.
Chief among those is the dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage): he drives the central storyline, bringing his crew from the Elf realm of Mirkwood to the human city of Laketown to the Misty Mountains in the name of reclaiming his Dwarf kingdom. While the film hints that he, like his ancestors, will be consumed by greed, he doesn’t have much of a tangible arc in this standalone film, either.
Forget about getting to know the rest of the 13-strong dwarf crew: if you can pick any one of them out of a crowd during the frequent action scenes, consider yourself lucky.
Save, perhaps, for Kili (Aidan Turner), who shares the closest thing this trilogy has to a romance: in a storyline created specifically for the movie, he, uh, has a connection with elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a character who wasn’t in the original novel. Sacrilege, I know, but Turner and Lilly are both good, and their characters refreshingly sympathetic.
Desolation of Smaug also introduces Bard (Luke Evans), who transports the dwarves into Lakeland. Bard seems to be an important character, but if you haven’t read the novel you wouldn’t know why – you’ll have to wait until next year’s There and Back Again to get the whole story.
And that’s the one real rub with these Hobbit films, which are likely to be better viewed as one giant whole rather than the individual segments that hit cinemas once a year. The screenplay, by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro, has pretty much cut the Tolkien novel into thirds, but it might have been better to rearrange things to present more fully-formed individual storylines. An Unexpected Journey, with its nice character work, got away with it; Desolation of Smaug leaves us with not one or two but at least three cliffhangers. By the end, we’re too aware that this isn’t the whole story.
But the skill and precision with which director Jackson creates the action sequences is where Desolation of Smaug really shines: the river barrel opening, inventively shot and staged, is a real blast, only to be topped by the incredibly complex Smaug vs. dwarves finale. As the middle part of the trilogy, this is truly exciting stuff, as long as you don’t mind watching only the middle part.