I can really summarise this review with just one sentence: Peter Jackson should have started with this one.
Okay, so from a plot-perspective that would have been tricky. But the biggest complaint about An Unexpected Journey (from me as well) was that it was a bit slow to get going. The Desolation of Smaug more than makes up for this, with the company fleeing the orcs from the first minute right into the jaws of a vicious [spoiler].
From there the action just escalates. We have Bilbo battling giant spiders. We have orcs fighting elves. We have dwarfs running rapids in barrels. While fighting orcs and elves. We have terrible, firebreathing dragons. (Okay, so there’s only one dragon. But he’s big. And terrible.)
The second installment in the Hobbit trilogy picks up shortly after the end of the first. The dwarfs, along with Gandalf and Bilbo, are still running from the orcs who’d had them trapped up in some pine trees a little while ago. They flee into Mirkwood, realm of Thranduil, king of the wood-elves (and father of Legolas), who’s not very happy to see them. From there they travel to Laketown where they meet Bard (who will play a very important role in the final film), and finally to Erebor, their final destination.
As with the first film, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh have taken some artistic liberties with the story. The events in Mirkwood have been altered some from the novel, as has the escape from the elves, the journey to Laketown, and what happens when Bilbo enters the mountain. In my opinion the alterations all worked, giving the film better pace and more tension than a true-to-novel approach would have had. There’s a love triangle that wasn’t in Tolkien’s version and Jackson has also added a sub-plot where we get to see what Gandalf gets up to when he leaves the company at the borders of Mirkwood – something that was not revealed in any detail in the novel. (I’m not revealing anything, in case you haven’t seen it yet, but let’s just say if I didn’t already know the story I’d have been very worried that Gandalf wasn’t going to make it.)
Martin Freeman gives a wonderful performance as Bilbo Baggins and really manages to portray the development of the character as the Ring begins to exert its influence on him. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) remains pretty much the same as in the first film while Balin (Ken Stott) and Kili (Aidan Turner) become characters in their own right rather than just being “one of the dwarfs”. Luke Evans is perfect for the mysterious character, Bard, while Stephen Fry is masterful as the Master of Laketown. Benedict Cumberbatch makes a very scary Smaug and Necromancer and Sir Ian Mckellan was apparently made to play the role of Gandalf the Grey, supported this time by Sylvester McCoy who is equally brilliant in his portrayal of Radagast the Brown. And Lee Pace plays a stone-cold Thranduil, probably the best portrayal of elvish aloofness yet in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
I was very pleased that the character, Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), was included in the film. I was concerned that, like Tom Bombadil in LOTR, he would be left out as he is not that crucial to the plot, but I guess this was one instance where Jackson’s decision to make three films paid off. Orlando Bloom returns as Legolas, accompanied by a character never mentioned in Tolkien’s works who had more than a few fans up in arms when she was first revealed. But Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly, is as bad-ass a warrior as they get, easily outfighting Legolas, but is simultaneously the elf most in touch with her emotions, making her one of the most balanced characters in the film.
The settings are detailed and beautiful as we have come to expect from the franchise. Mirkwood is as dark and ominous as Tolkien had originally described it. The gloomy realm of Thranduil stands in stark contrast to the other two elvish cities of Rivendell and Caras Galadhon. Laketown made me think of a London as described by Dickens and Erebor shows us what Moria must have looked like at the height of its splendour.
If I can lay one criticism against the film it’s that the 3D wasn’t really that noticeable. I’m sure it will be an experience on IMAX, or even in HFR, but if you’re seeing it in a regular cinema at the usual frame rate I’d question if the extra cost for 3D is worth it. Howard Shore’s score also wasn’t as memorable, but on the other hand there was very much in this film that distracted from the music, so maybe I just wasn’t paying attention to it.
The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug is well worth the time and money spent to see it on the big screen. If you were perhaps disappointed by the first film, rest assured that this one will restore your faith in the franchise.
Favourite line from the film? Where Balin tells Bilbo, “If you happen to find a sleeping dragon down there, try not to wake it.” You can probably guess what Bilbo does…