The second film in trilogies are always difficult to handle. The setup is done in the first film, while the conclusion is handled in the third, so the second film has to get stuck in straight away and normally end with a cliff-hanger ending, while still trying to have its own 3 act structure to avoid pacing issues. The Empire Strikes Back is the high benchmark of middle films, while The Two Towers handles it wonderfully, using the Battle of Helm's Deep as a fitting finale. Director Peter Jackson, already under pressure having extended JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit to three films returns to Middle Earth for the second in the new trilogy The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Following Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the group of dwarves lead by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), The Desolation of Smaug picks up where An Unexpected Journey left off. On the run from a group of orcs they are lead by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to Mirkwood forest, but the grey wizard has to leave to investigate strange goings on in Dol Guldur. The remaining group encounter various dangers before being captured in a series of events that threaten to disrail their overall mission to reach the Lonely Mountain and a showdown with the great dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).
If An Unexpected Journey suffered from a slow start, The Desolation of Smaug suffers from a troubled middle and an overall dramatic thrust. The dwarves are once again interchangeable, and only Kili (Aidan Turner) actually gets something new to do. Meanwhile the Arkanstone acts as a ring substitute for Thorin as he endlessly pontificates about destiny and gets that glazed precious look in his eye. The still perfectly cast Martin Freeman is criminally sidelined for long periods to a supporting role due to the influx of new characters and added scenes.
Once again shot and presented in 48fps, extensive work has clearly gone into making it less obtrusive and the results are wonderful. As always there's a defined sense of place and time, but unlike the original, which trod a little too closely to The Lord of the Rings, the Middle Earth here shines brighter than it has before. From the shimmering translucence of the Elven forest of Mirkwood to the enormous glittering stash of gold in Smaug's lair, each and every location and scene appears to have been given the due care and attention and really help to expand the size and originality of Tolkien's created world.
The characters, as always, are a well-realised and charismatic bunch, although the dwarves outside of Thorin, once again suffer due to the sheer number of them running about. The new additions like Beorn the bear man (Mikael Persbrandt) and the Mayor (Stephen Fry) help bring some fresh blood to proceedings, but it is Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel who really excels. Created by Jackson as a way of evening the male/female divide in the original texts, she brings back some of the excitement that Legolas provided in the original trilogy even outdoing a returning Orlando Bloom in the process.
The strength if the novel continues to be tested as scenes are liberally added to fill out the running time. It is fine in theory, but one too many escape scenes lead to a distinct reduction in threat and a slight muddling of the main narrative. The necromancer elements have a beautiful and mesmerising payoff, but the buildup simply adds more running time and is solely there to tie the two trilogies together. The disappointing action elements from the first are fixed; There's barrel escapes, giant spiders, the return of the elves and of course Smaug himself. As a director there are few who can match Jackson's eye for original action sequences and populist adventure film-making and The Desolation of Smaug is him back to his very best.
The big marquee performance rests on the scaly brow of the titular dragon and it is here where The Desolation of Smaug really flies. He makes his appearance well into this near 3 hour epic and is a revelation. Benedict Cumberbatch provides the deep, rumbling voice, reminiscent of The Goblin King from Return to Oz, and the talented actor even provides some motion capture movement work. Dragons have been created and used in film before, but never with such astounding and dramatic effect and his realisation is the true highlight of the film. Cumberbatch embues the creature with a majestic, arrogant, terrifying wonder that will live on long past the credits.
In terms of big-scale action-adventure film-making The Desolation of Smaug proves once again that Jackson has a place alongside George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The locations, Art design, costumes, action set-pieces and Smaug himself are all wonderfully realised and beautifully presented. It's just a shame that the story can't live up to the bar that these set. To paraphrase the great hobbit himself "It's feels too thin, like butter scraped over too much bread."