I'm sure the title of the review will lead my readers to think that I didn't like The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. On the contrary, I found it to be an improvement on the first installment, which suffered from languorous pacing and wafer thin character development. This middle chapter, though as maddeningly true to Tolkien's text as An Unexpected Journey, is much more of a movie than a travelogue, and is closest in spirit to the original Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. As much as I enjoyed the film, I still think that turning a 250 page novel for kids into a three part epic is a little excessive.
After a brief and completely unnecessary flashback of the first meeting between the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage), the action picks up with the company of dwarves and reluctant adventurer Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continuing their journey to the Lonely Mountain. With a horde of Orcs in hot pursuit, they fight through a forbidding forest swarming with giant spiders and encounter the less than friendly Wood Elves, including LOTR favorite Legolas (a noticeably older Orlando Bloom) and the Elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a character original to the screenplay. Eventually they make their way to the Lonely Mountain and confront the great dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Director Peter Jackson, as he has proven many times, holds the original books in the highest esteem. This is a strength, but Jackson also embraces Tolkien's tendency to meander. The first act of the film tends to drag, particularly during their encounter with shapeshifting man/bear Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) and their wanderings in the forest of Mirkwood. The movie finds its footing when Bilbo climbs a tree out of the murk and stares in wonder at a sea of butterflies amidst the sun dappled foliage. The scene captures the sense of awe that Jackson captured so well in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. What follows is a series of fantastic set pieces; the scene where Bilbo and the Dwarves escape the Elves by riding barrels down a raging river whilst simultaneously fighting off an attack by Orcs stands along the best moments of the entire series. The high point of the film is Bilbo's cat and mouse encounter with the dragon. Cumberbatch imbues Smaug with such menace and intelligence that, when coupled with the incredibly rendered effects, the result is as compelling a character as Gollum.
Tolkien purists are no doubt giving themselves ulcers over the liberties taken with the original story. The most obvious is the invention of the Elf Tauriel, whose presence sparks a love triangle with Legolas and hunky Dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). Since Tolkien neglected to write a single female character into The Hobbit, these additions create much needed complexity to the story. Characters that were thinly drawn in the book are given added dimension, such as Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). Other changes involve events hinted at in the book but never fully realized, such as Gandalf's investigation of the sinister Necromancer (also Cumberbatch), whose true identity ties directly into the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson is keen to add weight to what is otherwise a light adventure story, and he spends a lot of creative energy hammering home the point that dark times are approaching.
This tactic works cinematically for the most part, particularly because the filmmakers spend more attention to character this time around. The Dwarves begin to emerge as individuals rather than a mass of running beards, and the relationship between Tauriel and the Dwarf Kili is quite touching. The film ends on the most abrupt cliffhanger I've seen in a long while. The fact that I found myself wanting more is proof that Jackson really got his storytelling hooks in me, something he didn't do the last time around.