Starring: Martin Freeman (The World’s End), Ian McKellen (X-Men), Richard Armitage (Captain America: The First Avenger), Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness), Luke Evans (Immortals), Evangeline Lilly (Real Steel), Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Director: Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy)
Writers: Peter Jackson & Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) & Guillermo Del Toro (Pacific Rim)
Runtime: 2 hours 41 minutes
Release Date: 13 December (US, UK)
We are over the hump on this quest to slay a dragon and reclaim a city, but we still have a fair way to go. The first Hobbit adventure, An Unexpected Journey, was a solid return to Middle-Earth that unfortunately suffered from poor pacing and some uneven storytelling. Have these problems been addressed in this sophomore chapter.
To answer that question: pretty much, yeah. Whilst the first film took 45 minutes of its hefty runtime to even begin the journey, this one (after a brief prologue) picks up right where we left off and gets straight back into the action; its almost as if you never left. And from then on, the film manages to keep up the pace and remains consistently entertaining. At points in the first film, you could nod off for five or ten minutes and not miss anything. Here, it feels much more tightly constructed; I was never bored for long during the film. Does that mean that those issues from the previous instalment have been completely fixed? Not quite. The film does still run a little too long for comfort and certain scenes (such as the sequence with Beorn or the encounter between Thorin (Richard Armitage) and Thranduil (Lee Pace)) could have been cut or simplified. However, these problems have gone from major to niggling, and in comparison it still feels much better. The film benefits from having a much grander scale with more characters, more varied scenery, and a lot more action. At points it feels much more like Lord of the Rings than the first one did. Almost too much. There are certain sequences and plot beats that feel eerily similar to moments from the original trilogy, but for the most part this sense of familiarity gives it the epic quality that the first film often lacked. And to those wondering how much of the book is left to adapt for the final entry by the end: not too much. I’m guessing the third film will feature a lot of new material, but I do think that this film has a much better hook for the next one that the first one did.
Martin Freeman was a perfect casting choice as Bilbo Baggins, and he’s better than ever here. Whilst he still remains as lovable and cunning as ever, the little moments that allude to the true nature of his ring and how it’s affecting him are a nice touch that add dimension to his character. Ian McKellen still owns the role of Gandalf, but unfortunately he’s barely in this outing as he spends the majority of his time in a subplot that seemingly won’t fully pay off until the next one. All the dwarves are still entertaining and have become easier to discern with time, but they still only have one character trait each. Thorin gets the most attention, and even though his role at this point is basically to be Aragon Jr, he still proves to be a formidable force. The film is stuffed with new characters, some of which weren’t even in the book. Luke Evans’ Bard is interesting but he doesn’t get enough screen time, as is the case with Pace’s Thranduil. Orlando Bloom returns from the original trilogy as Legolas, allowing him more time to show off how much of a badass he is but not much else. With him is original character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who has an interesting hinted romance subplot with Kili (Aiden Turner) that mirrors the relationship between Merry and Eoywn but it doesn’t get too much attention. But the real show stealer is Smaug himself, played wonderfully by Benedict Cumberbatch. Ignoring the effects involved in creating the character, the voice and personality Cumberbatch gives the fearsome dragon makes him a truly threatening villain, and his scene with Freeman rivals the Riddles in the Dark sequence from the first film in terms of suspense.
The action scenes in The Desolation of Smaug are more frequent and more varied, filled with wonderfully inventive choreography. The barrel sequence is just a blast to watch with plenty of moving parts and changing dynamics, whilst the final showdown in Erebor is equally thrilling. On a technical level, everything is just as good or better than the first film. The production design is grand, the score rousing, and the digital cinematography and 48fps didn’t feel so out of place this time round; perhaps I’ve just gotten used to it. The visual effects have improved significantly compared to the first film for the most part, but there are certain areas like in the first where it looks unpolished. For example, Smaug looks fantastic but the molten metal used in the finale looks amateurish at points. I think Jackson has again relied too much on VFX and hasn’t done enough practical work with models and animatronics. The balanced mix of live effects and CGI in the original trilogy worked so well that I find it confusing why Jackson decided to pull a George Lucas in this department.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an improvement on the first film and has helped restore my faith in Peter Jackson as a filmmaker. The film has ridden itself of a lot of the fat that weighed its predecessor down to allow for a much more entertaining adventure that is less likely to put you to sleep. It’s certainly a very good film, but still not as good as any of the Lord of the Rings movies and not as massive an improvement the second Hunger Games film was over the first. Let’s just hope Jackson and company can keep the momentum going as we wait another year for the journey to end in There and Back Again.
FINAL VERDICT: 9/10