The best Middle Earth universe film since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, this is Peter Jackson's brilliant and exciting intermezzo in The Hobbit prequel trilogy. A lot of fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's works have been a little more critical of these prequel films to the highly successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, attempting to compare them to George Lucas' Star Wars prequel trilogy, but this is hardly the stuff of uneven craftmanship or being trapped in one man's think tank. The novel of The Hobbit is more of a novella compared to all of Tolkien's later works. It functions as a simple fairy tale about a diminutive courageous man referred to as a hobbit that travels with a company of dwarves and a wizard (of average human height) to slay a dragon in order to take back a mountain kingdom. A very simple story with only a couple unusual scenes like titular character, Bilbo Baggins, meeting a cave-dwelling creature called Gollum who carries a magic ring of invisibility and several unexplained disappearances of the wizard, Gandalf. The latter oddity makes a very good point in accordance to necessary expansion for storytelling purposes.
Tolkien was still in the very early stages of creating his most famous literary universe where most of his aforementioned plot holes were designed to likely keep children readers in suspense. Today, audiences like knowing where everything is and where everything goes, so a great deal of the adaptation of this novella for three films (scribed by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philppa Boyens and original intended director Guillermo Del Toro) make note of the later works of Tolkien to fill in the gaps to enrich the cinematic experience. Tolkien's Appendices, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-earth have been integrated within The Hobbit world as well as some original material to tie the elements together. For the most part, audiences have generally liked these new films, especially The Desolation of Smaug. The argument against the film is something of a moot point: “Tolkien didn't write it that way.” According to quotes by Tolkien himself however, he would have loved to have completely rewritten The Hobbit book in order to fix the prose, post-Lord of the Rings. This may put to rest this debate since the objective now is to make The Hobbit universe as beautifully detailed as LOTR. Desolation has a far greater advantage in its storytelling than An Unexpected Journey did in that it allows you to confront the main antagonist to the entire story, Smaug the Terrible (Thorin, the leader of the dwarf company, actually did not confront Smaug in the book, so this is a logical addition). The first film in this new trilogy sets up a lot of events to come, but does not really encounter the impending doom of such events until this film.
Here, the goblins are gearing for a big battle (which will lead to the last sequel, The Battle of the Five Armies), the folk of Laketown are terrified of their city being laid to waste, the Elves are not fond of any future destruction that can not be prevented, and the dragon Smaug, finally awakes to the attack by the dwarves to reclaim their homeland. There is a detailed explanation now for Gandalf's disappearances where he appropriately investigates why the nearby forests are darkening and crumbling. It is not necessarily the appearance of Sauron (the main antagonist from The Lord of the Rings) that makes this interesting, but the disease-like nature of goblins, trolls (as seen in Unexpected) and giant spiders that start to infest these naturally beautiful areas. Joining the dwarves on their crusade is the returning character of Orlando Bloom's Legolas and a new elf warrioress named Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly. These two characters are not present in the book, so there has also been criticism for these additions. The motivation though is fairly clear though: this chapter in this story is meant to build up the impending war. So far, only a few dwarves have been seen as soldiers, but this film introduces two highly-trained elves, a Laketown mercenary, and even an immensely strong man that can transform into a bear-like dog. These characters all motivate some incredibly strong action sequences that keeps this film far tighter-paced than its predecessor.
The main joy of this film is definitely Peter Jackson's imaginative fight sequences, which entail ideas I have never seen before on film including characters escaping in barrels in a river, the main protagonist Bilbo falling on branches to evade giant spiders, a character jumping from roof to boat to dock in Laketown (the production design by Dan Hennah is absolutely breathtaking on Laketown looking like a wooden version of Venice, Italy) and even a dragon nearly drowning in a pool of molten gold. The cast is still top notch with Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Richard Armitage as Thorin, all carrying the film with their own distinctive brands of charisma. One of the biggest scene stealers is, in fact, Benedict Cumberbatch's velvet-voiced Smaug who eeriely slithers across the screen like a beautiful animalistic version of Tim Curry. His appearance alone is worth multiple viewings to examine the gorgeous computer graphics involved to breathe life and FIRE into this mythological creature. It is good to see the Middle Earth universe filled with such immense doom again. This reviewer looks forward to further chaos in the final chapter.