The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a bore; a nearly three-hour exercise in self-indulgence, rife with insufferable sequences of sing-song and irritating characters. Save for one terrific sequence featuring the iconic Gollum, the film was also shockingly devoid of thrills. Sure, there were far worse films to come out in its year but none were as disappointing. Coupled with the failure of The Lovely Bones, the film tarnished the once-sterling reputation of Peter Jackson, leaving many of his fans, including yours truly, wondering whether he had turned into a 21st century George Lucas.
The Desolation of Smaug, the second entry in The Hobbit trilogy, inherits many of the same problems of its predecessor – once again, it’s far too long, there are five too many characters, and there’s little in way of character development. But where it skims on character, it handsomely makes up with suspense, thrills, energy, and spectacular set-pieces.
Picking up where its predecessor ended, the sequel picks up with Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the rest of the 13 dwarves continuing on their mission to the Lonely Mountain. But to get there, they’ll first need to cross through enchanted forests stricken with gigantic flesh-eating spiders. They’ll then need to hide from murderous orcs and escape the clutches of a slimy Elf king named Thranduil (Lee Pace) and his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom, returning to the series). They’ll also have to convince a town of destitute humans to endorse their mission, and finally, face-off against the titular Smaug, a vain and conniving fire-breathing dragon (voiced with devious glee by Benedict Cumberbatch). Elsewhere, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who leaves the group at the film’s start, senses the presence of an ancient (and familiar) force – something that will eventually bring death and devastation to Middle Earth.
Although I still remain perplexed at Jackson’s decision to split a 300-page book (plus appendixes) into three epic-length films, The Desolation of Smaug is nevertheless a significant improvement over its predecessor. From its opening scene itself, you get the sense that this will be a darker, more somber film than its predecessor. Dread permeates in every corner and as the movie progresses, the darkness only intensifies. Bilbo, who started off as a happy-go-lucky hobbit in the first film, is a less jolly character here. You can tell that the ring, which he won at the end of the first film, is beginning to take its toll on him, corrupting and consuming him. You see it in his eyes, his demeanor, and even in the way he wields his sword.
One of the key differences this time around is that the supporting characters are no longer in the shadows. Thorin in particular is the biggest benefactor as we learn what propels his journey to the Lonely Mountain, among other things; the other dwarf characters also get more to do, especially when the arduousness of the journey takes its toll on the crew. There’s even a tender albeit unnecessary romantic subplot between one of the dwarfs and an elf warrior named Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) – a brand new creation on part of Jackson and company.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Hobbit movie without the requisite scenes of silliness – and there are quite a few here. Thankfully, there’s nothing as grossly inane as the 40 minute dinner table scene in the first one. Jackson leaves his strongest hands for action set-pieces though. The best of these – a visceral blend of chaos and madcap physical comedy – follows the dwarfs as they escape in wooden barrels down a river while being pursued by a band of orcs and elves. It’s akin to a water-park thrill ride, and calls to mind the virtuoso single-shot towards the end of Spielberg’s terrific The Adventures of Tintin (a film, not co-incidentally, produced by Jackson).
The other major sequence of note is the tremendous climax set inside the Lonely Mountain where Bilbo faces off against the cunning Smaug (the latest triumph of CGI wizardry from the team at Weta) in the battle of the wits. The Desolation of Smaug may not match the power, emotion and gravitas of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (An Unexpected Journey was proof that not even Jackson can), but it succeeds in getting the Hobbit franchise back on track. Most of all, it proves that Peter Jackson is back!