It seems The Hobbit is determined to follow the same pattern as Lord Of The Rings. The first film was good but essentially just involved a lot of walking with a plot where much of it could have been cut out without hurting the overall arc of the story. The second is overall a better movie, but leaves things in a way where it’s difficult to fully judge it without seeing part three, as it spends so much time setting things up for that movie.
The Desolation Of Smaug picks up where the last film left off, with Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the band of dwarves heading towards the Lonely Mountain in order to take on the dragon Smaug, who many years ago took smote Erebor and displaced the dwarves who lived there.
Their journey isn’t getting any easier, as they get attacked by giant spiders in the Mirkwood, locked up by the Wood Elves, are being tracked by Orcs that want them dead, and then they have to deal with the complicated politics of Laketown, which they have to go through in order to get to the mountain. And get there they must, as the only way inside is to be there at the right time on the right day, so every delay puts that at risk.
Getting there is just the beginning of the problems though, as inside lurks the terrible Smaug, a gargantuan beast who in the past has laid waste to entire civilisations and seems virtually indestructible.
One problem I had with the first film is that it often felt like the obstacles in the adventurer’s way were a little random and mainly served to add to the running time. Peter Jackson seems to have realised that, so that while in An Unexpected Journey each trial was only tangentially linked to a great evil lurking in the shadows, in Desolation Of Smaug the connection between the dwarves’ mission and the events that will lead to the rise of Sauron are made much clearer and are tied in better.
It’s a smart move as the problem The Hobbit always faced is that the book is far more of a fun romp than Lord Of The Rings, but on film audiences have come to expect something a little grander from Middle Earth than The Hobbit might have produced. Much of The Desolation Of Smaug is about underlining that more is at stake than overcoming a dragon and the overall threat is much more palpable this time around. There’s also less of the family friendly silliness that you could understand in the first movie but which didn’t really work.
The movie is a lot of fun and despite having a similar running time to An Unexpected Journey, it feels much tighter and flows a lot better this time around.
Many will also welcome the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who could have felt tacked on as he doesn’t appear in the book, but he’s brought in in such a way that it feels organic. There are also a couple of new elves, including Lee Pace’s Thandruil, who had a brief appearance in the first film but here reveals himself to be a rather unpleasant , self-centred character. There’s also Evangeline Lilly, who’s very good as elf Tauriel, but is slightly trapped by the fact she largely seems to be there to prove Galadriel isn’t the only woman in the entirety of Middle Earth. As a result she has to be a love interest for more than one guy, and in the case of one of them, you have to wonder why they even mention the possibility.
We also get to meet Luke Evan’s Bard, who’ll become more central in the third movie, and there’s a bit of fun added by Stephen Fry’s wonderfully slimy Master Of Laketown, a man whose only care is his own position.
The Desolation Of Smaug isn’t perfect and as with An Unexpected Journey there are one too many implausible escapes, where the fates align a little too much to stop our heroes from being squished, shot or otherwise shuffled off this mortal coil. But hey, this is a fantasy movie, so getting annoyed that a building crashes to the ground in just the right way to allow Bilbo to roll to safety or that one of the dwarves manages to just miss being trodden on by a dragon for the 43rd time seems slightly disingenuous.
It might not be perfect but it is a very satisfying adventure, with humour that works a lot better this time around and a storyline that skips along in an exciting and cohesive manner. As mentioned though, it still all rests on The Hobbit: There And Back Again, particularly as The Desolation Of Smaug ends on such a cliffhanger. In the case of Return Of The King, the conclusion was so good that it actually improved the earlier movies in retrospect, and if the third Hobbit can continue to build things in the way The Desolation Of Smaug does, that may be true here too.
The most intriguing question though is how it’s going to deal with giving us a fitting ending, when we all know the growing menace of Sauron isn’t about to be vanquished. This isn’t a problem in the book as it isn’t really addressed. The novel is more of a standalone adventure that isn’t concerned with Sauron all that much, but with the films it has become increasingly central.
You’ll also be pleased to hear it looks good on Blu-ray. With An Unexpected Journey the picture retained the slightly hyper-real yet oddly unreal look of the 48fps cinema version – which was particularly problematic as the live-action characters often looked they’d been roughly layered on top of the fantasy world around them (which they had, but you don’t want to see that). Jackson deliberately toned the slightly jarring sharpness down for Desolation Of Smaug, and it was a good choice as it ensures the picture on the Blu-ray is beautiful and incredibly sharp, but makes Middle Earth seem like a real place once more.
As we’ve come to expect from the world of Middle Earth, the special features on the Blu-ray are pretty good. While obviously they’re not as extensive as we’ll get when the Extended Version of The Desolation Of Smaug arrives later this year, they’re still very informative.
The best things are the multi-part 40-minute ‘Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set’ featurettes. ‘All In A Day’s Work’ is a particularly smart way of doing an overview, as it follows events from incredibly early in the morning getting ready for the day’s shoot, right through to after things wrap for the day. However the footage comes from across the shoot, so you really get a good feel for quite how much went on, from how many prosthetics had to be produced every single day, to what it took to feed the cast and crew. It certainly impresses on you what an incredible operation making these movies was.
There are also several of Peter Jackson’s production blogs. These ones focus on the pick-up shoots, where the cast and crew reconvened long after the main shoot was completed, so that they could reshoot certain sections and complete bits they couldn’t do first time around. It’s a fascinating view into the production, particularly in terms of what Jackson did and didn’t know during initial shooting – not least that they hadn’t decided on the look of Smaug first time around.
It all works as a good look at the making of the film for those who are interested in the world behind-the-scenes, but who may not want the type of depth the Extended Version extras will inevitably offer.
Overall Verdict: A significant improvement of An Unexpected Journey, which manages to tone down the silliness, make everything feel more important (and not just stalling for time) and which properly underlines the magnitude of the quest. It’s a fun, entertaining movie that does a good job of setting up what will hopefully be a rousing conclusion.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac