I count myself as one of the apparent few who liked The Hobbit: AnUnexpected Journey well enough and certainly doesn’t think it deserving of the venom some were all-too-happy to spit at it. Certainly the film had its share of problems, with far too many dwarfs singing dull songs, and Peter Jackson not doing a very good job of getting things moving. But as the film neared its end, and a miraculous transformation occurs within its unlikely hero Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the franchise underwent a similar evolution, one that continues with the far-superior and highly enjoyable The Desolation of Smaug.
Picking up where the last film left off and thus moving at a snappier pace, we’re thrust right in the middle of the barrel-riding adventure, one that is lighter, funnier, and makes the most of a wide array of colorful characters. That's something we couldn't say about the prior movie, which mostly relegated Bilbo's dwarven companions to background characters recognizable only by the lengths of their beards. A part of that could have had to do with Jackson seeming to spend more time laying the foundations for his already-completed Lordof the Rings trilogy rather than focusing on giving The Hobbit a narrative to call its own. 'Desolation of Smaug', while still very episodic in nature befitting its place as the trilogy's middle chapter, feels like it has a purpose all its own.
A big part of that purpose is to up the action significantly. There are more orcs, more elves, more giant spiders, a shape-shifter the size of Manute Bol, more of everything than before, making for a grand swashbuckling time. Bilbo and his fellowship crash (sometimes literally) into one sticky situation after another, beginning with an evil forest in Mirkwood and a nest of nasty arachnids. J.R.R. Tolkien's novel is a slim read but pulls deeply from every appendix he can get his hands on, and still finds room to invent some things out of whole cloth. One conjured up aspect that works extremely well is a greater focus on the woodland elves, with Lee Pace as their arrogant king Thranduil. His son Legolas (Orlando Bloom) has yet to become the fun-loving orc killer we come to know later on, but he's got a thing for the hot female elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who may be falling for the brave (and surprisingly tall) dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). Did The Hobbit really need another love story at the center of it? Yeah, it kind of does because there sure aren't any females to be found anywhere else. Besides, it serves as a reminder that Jackson has a few tricks up his sleeve that aren't just totally cribbed from Tolkien.
Between the daring escapes and sword-clanging clashes with orcs and goblins, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has a quest of his own to the gloomy, desolate castle Dol Guldur to confront a growing evil known as the Necromancer. A lot of fierce magic gets thrown around and the true enemy is revealed, not that it was ever much of a mystery. It's all just foreshadowing, which is kind of odd to be dropping hints for movies we've already seen, but they work a little like DVD Easter eggs. Those who know Tolkien's world inside and out will get every obscure reference and oddly-named locale. The rest will wonder what the difference is between a Beorn and a Bofur. They're both dwarves, right?
Jackson shoots the action with a greater sense of urgency, and has fun indulging in the visual flourishes in a way he didn't before. In particular the sweeping, thrilling barrel-riding escape sequence is much bigger than Tolkien ever imagined it. Elves, orcs, worgs and other creatures are bounding around everywhere, not to mention a good number of flying arrows. There is scarcely a dull moment over the course of the first couple of hours, so much so that it one might feel exhausted once the dwarfs make it to Laketown, smuggled in reluctantly by eventual hero Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), who they might as well call Aragorn Jr. Laketown is in itself an impressive feat of construction; a town that resembles the waterways of Venice by way Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes. Also dazzling, but considerably more ominous, is the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who lies beneath a room full of gold at the heart of the Lonely Mountain. The greatest set piece is reserved for him, as well it should be, and Smaug makes for a menacing villain and imposing presence. Taking up nearly every inch of the screen with every appearance, Smaug is easily the scariest Cumberbatch has been on screen this year. Sorry, StarTrek fans but you know it's true.
And at the heart of all this is Bilbo Baggins, and a large part of the reason this film works so well is how Martin Freeman has grown into the role, similar to Bilbo's growth into a hero. He still hasn't quite earned the respect of his cantankerous companions, but it's a treat to watch him take on Smaug basically alone, and stand up for himself when called upon. He's also begun to use that mysterious ring, his "precious", and is starting to feel its addicting effects. Richard Armitage continues to be appropriately brave and stern, but he's hardly a sympathetic figure yet. Tauriel is perhaps the one character other than Bilbo who gets an emotional arc worth investing in as she challenges her clan's isolationist attitude.
An abrupt cliffhanger reminds us that these movies are meant to be enjoyed as a whole rather than separate, and the simple truth is that The Desolation of Smaug is a vast improvement over An Unexpected Journey. It deserves to be championed in the way Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies are, and sets this latest journey through Middle Earth back on the right track.