If anything, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a huge dose of reality. The appetizer after the main course. Stretched supremely thin. In a new viewing format. It was a huge success but it felt like a film out of time. Peter Jackson’s first foray into Middle-earth was the ultimate success, three films that made incredible money but also won the hearts of critics and became legitimate awards contenders. His return to the world of hobbits and rings and wizards was anything but and as solid family fare during the holiday season. It wasn’t bad but it certainly wasn’t the four corner colossus The Lord of the Rings was. The second installment needed to embrace that shortcoming or move the bar closer towards the promised land. The Desolation of Smaug is a bold step forward for the latest trilogy and while it doesn’t come close to the majesty of the first series it feels like a major event film and a worthy part of the franchise. That’s an accomplishment considering the complete absence of the Gollum character.
Beginning with a flashback to the conversation between Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellan) and dwarven leader Thorin (Richard Armitage), the film quickly gets to business as the group of travelers continue their journey towards the Lonely Mountain and its potential to revive the land of Erebor. Where the first film spent an enormous amount of time establishing the journey and introducing the characters The Desolation of Smaug assumes the audience is caught up and lets the arrows fly. The Hobbit films have thusly adhered to the formula and like The Two Towers this film is heavy with action and oftentimes action that bounces from location to location throughout. It also ends on a cliffhanger and therefore does suffer a little from “middle film syndrome”.
Where the film rises is in its action and in the further perfection of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and his scaly computer generated opponent Smaug (voiced by the always welcome Benedict Cumberbatch). Though there is a definite theme park feel to the large set pieces, they are fun and packed with legitimately memorable moments. The central “barrel ride” through rapids as the dwarves escape Elven imprisonment is fantastic and it allows returning character Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and newly invented Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) to provide a high or body count with impalements, beheadings, and assorted other grievous bodily injuries. It’s kinetic, impressively staged, and something the first film lacked… fun. It’s fun. Even the cynics in the crowd found a moment for themselves and it showcases the Peter Jackson that helped establish his brand. It is a bit messy and some of the Elf gymnastics and killing perfection wears thin but the result helps to keep the film from becoming inert.
Freeman has the role of his life here, bringing a lot of warmth and vulnerability to Bilbo. He anchors the film well and though some have said his character takes too much of a back seat the timing is perfect. There were too many superfluous characters in the first film and the time spent with them in this installment makes the group more whole. When Freeman is onscreen he’s a beacon. Cumberbatch does a great job in his voice role (his motion capture performance wasn’t used) and Smaug is a fantastic creation. Even though there’s not nearly the sense of danger and viciousness from The Lord of the Rings here, Smaug’s grandstanding and vanity does a great bit of good. The addition of a human character in Luke Evans’ Bard also helps skew the balance and there’s a really nice sequence which showcases the return of the villainous Sauron done in a style new to the franchise.
It’s a bit messy and not quite up to the polish of the first series but it feels right and it entertains consistently. Don’t believe the hate. It’s a lot closer to where it ought to be.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars