At this point it has become abundantly clear that this new trilogy of films based in J.R.R. Tolkien's wondrous fantasy world of Middle-earth is not up to the same quality as the previous Lord of the Rings trilogy. Last year's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (henceforth to be known as AUJ) and this years superior sequel, and middle section of the trilogy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (henceforth to be known as TDOS) are both fantastic fantasy adventure films in their own right that provide hours of quality of entertainment, but they just aren't as well put together as that other, more highly regarded trilogy. This isn't a case of the Star Wars sequels versus the prequels, but there is a noticeable decline in quality.
Blame it on trying to spread a single book into three, three hour films or blame it on the material itself for having a much lighter tone with not nearly the amount of depth to it that the other film trilogy had, but regardless this is a fact that we have to acknowledge and move beyond if we are ever to enjoy these new films for what they are, which is much much more of a good thing. Saying that AUJ is lesser of a film than Fellowship of the Ring is the same as saying The Last Crusade is a lesser film than Raiders of the Lost Ark. Both are amazing films in their own ways, even if one happens to be the better film of the two. They are still both fantastic films which is better than comparing Raiders of the Lost Ark with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull right? Anyways, on with the review.
In true Peter Jackson fashion, the opening to the second part of his trilogy starts out by taking a few steps back in order to give us some much needed history on how this journey began and more importantly, why it began. We find Thorin (Richard Armitage) at the Prancing Pony in the city of Bree (which most will remember is the exact same place that Gandalf had requested to meet Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring), where he comes across Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) almost by circumstance. But their meeting was by no mere chance as the cunning and underhanded Gandalf often does, he tells Thorin of his destiny to retake his homeland of Erebor from the mighty dragon Smaug who has layed claimed to it, but his motivations as usual or more than just to help Thorin reclaim his birthright.
From there we are thrust into the present and find our group of 13 dwarves, one wizard and our hobbit, Mr. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) right where we left them last year, on the run from a pack of angry and hungry Orcs. Suffice it to say that unless you have that first film fresh in your mind, chances are that the opening half hour of the film will feel a little bumpy in regards to understanding what is going on at first and where exactly we are geographically from out destination, the Lonely Mountain (which that scene between Thorin and Gandalf preceding it was attempting to thwart). But once we have our footing it is smooth riding from there on.
Right from the get go this film's focus has shifted noticeably from that of Bilbo, whom was the central and most prominent character in AUJ to Thorin and his company of dwarves. One of the areas that the first film felt lacking in was characterization, where it successfully introduced us to our main hero Bilbo, with the sole exception of Thorin, the dwarves themselves all felt like nothing more than mere background characters. Despite having a lengthy introduction to them and spending nearly three hours with them, it was difficult to remember any of their names or any sort of distinct character traits among them. In short (no pun intended), they weren't so much characters as they were just comic relief.
Well, after spending the entirety of the first film establishing Bilbo, this next chapter in The Hobbit trilogy has seen fit to finally give us some time with Thorin and his dwarven fellowship. By no means will you instantly know each and every one of them, but at least you can pick a few of them out of the bunch now which goes a long way into creating a connection between them and the audience. This new focus is almost immediately noticed as Bilbo isn't in the forefront nearly as much as he was before, although he still has plenty to do and on more than one occasion is the savior of the day with some true displays of heroism.
But there are many more smaller moments where we get some time with the dwarves on an individual basis that will likely have some great pay offs when the third chapter arrives next year. Moments such as Thorin's defiance towards the Woodland Realm Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace) or the budding romance between the Elven warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and the dwarven warrior Kili (Aiden Turner) are highlights of the character work going on in TDOS that was missing from AUJ. This attention to character detail goes a long way in getting the audience invested in their quest and ultimately their fates.
The introduction of a handful of new (and old) characters also helps broaden the appeal for those who don't find the dwarves particularly engaging. The aforementioned visit to the Woodland Realm of Elves introduces us to not only the enigmatic Thranduil and the beautiful Tauriel, but fan favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom) returns to provide audiences with even more of his trademark outlandishness in the heat of battle (his bow gets a real work out here). The elves are only a single step up this flight of stairs to our destination though as we also get introduced to a new form(s) of Middle-earth residents such as the shape shifting Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) whose brief appearance only expands the mythology of the series despite it being all too brief.
We also see the return of humans into the mix when we reach the lake town known as...uh, Laketown. Here we are introduced to an Aragorn-like sort of fellow by the name of Bard (Luke Evans) who just like Aragorn shares a tainted family secret that he is ashamed of and is clearly telegraphed that he will have his opportunity to set things right. Amongst all these new characters though there is a single force that stands tall (literally) above the rest and that my friends is our introduction to the stupendous, the tyrannical, the almighty...Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).
Not since Gollum's first appearance in The Two Towers has a character made completely by computers and animators had such an immediate impact. What makes up the entirety of the film's final act (which amounts to just a little under an hour) is the much anticipated raid on Erebor where for nearly two films we have been teased and tormented by the stories of Smaug's desolation. The eventual reveal of Smaug, which has been hinted at nicely in all the marketing for the film, is without a doubt this film's (and likely this entire trilogy's) crowning achievement.
Smaug is one of the most fully realized and completely captivating film villains in recent memory. His dialog (yes, he talks) coupled with Benedict Cumberbatch's commanding vocal performance are the thing of legend. As he stalks Bilbo and the other dwarves throughout his golden underground kingdom and taunts them endlessly as he toys with their lives, it is near impossible to take your eyes away from the screen as his every moment remains endlessly engaging. Indeed, all the sequences involving Smaug is nearly enough to forgive these films for any other misgivings you may have towards them.
But the truth remains that it does take two whole hours to reach that point in the film which could be too much for some viewers. Sure, the film moves with much more purpose this time around and has nary a hitch in its step, but that isn't likely to change the opinions of those who felt the journey in AUJ wore thin by the time it ended. You really must have a fondness for the world of Middle-earth and a fascination for all its splendors in order to look past such seemingly pointless encounters such as a forest filled with spiders and yet even more build up towards the inevitable return of Sauron.
Here lies the one and only true fault with TDOS, and that is with its continued need to tie itself together with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was neat and often really cool to see things such as Weathertop or the trolls who turn to stone (both of which make appearances in Fellowship of the Ring) in AUJ, but here there is an entire subplot involving a Necromancer who is building an army for "The One". These are things that may have been appreciated in the film's expected extended edition for fans, but isn't needed at all to tell this story.
More often than not there were moments of real excitement as we see Bilbo try to outwit Smaug and retrieve his prize, the Arkenstone. But there is the constant intercutting between Bilbo, Laketown and Dol Guldur that really saps alot of energy out of the moment. With the sole exception of Laketown (which actually has a bearing on the story at hand), everything in Dol Guldur with Gandalf feels like pure fan service and lends nothing at all to what is happening with Bilbo, Thorin or any of the other interesting characters we met along the way on this particular journey.
These scenes with Gandalf in search of the Necromancer aren't bad, they just aren't needed. And when the film is already running close to three hours in length, the quicker we get to Smaug and the Lonely Mountain the better. It's hard to not imagine how much more tightly focused and exhilarating these films would have been had a third film not been mandated. This is all speculation of course since we will likely never know what was to be included originally and what was added, but watching TDOS will have most audiences reflecting on what could have been instead of what is.
None of this is to say that TDOS isn't the exciting second chapter we were hoping for, because it most certainly is. Some of the visual delights alone are worth the price of admission, especially the endless halls of Erebor covered in what looks like an infinite amount of wealth scattered all throughout. Then there is Smaug, if not the singular reason to see the film then at the very least a justification for long build up to his glorious reveal. Then when you add in the more in depth characterizations for the dwarves themselves which gives some weight to their quest and the newly added characters who help breath more life into this trilogy, you have one of the best films of the year and a marked improvement over the tedious (albeit fun) first outing.
The last thing to mention before wrapping this lengthy review up is how to see the film. With so many options available, such as HFR, ATMOS, 3D and IMAX it can all become a little overwhelming, especially since it is impossible to see it with all those options at once. While ATMOS provides the optimum auditory experience (Smaug's voice is likely amazing in it) and IMAX provides the better and bigger screen, the best combination of formats to see it in would have to be HFR and 3D. The HFR format once again will take some getting used to, but does provide the best visual treatment (and Jackson's intended format) for the film and that matched with the amazing 3D effects is unparalleled.
For as successful a film as TDOS is, it still falls short of the greatness that is any of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But that isn't to say it isn't a fantastic film in its own right and is superior to those films in many ways, especially with the mighty Smaug who is a much more appealing evil for our heroes to face off against than an eyeball on fire. Those who found the first film to be too plodding and never really amounted to anything will find this film a completely and much more fulfilling experience. The only thing that will likely universally piss everyone off is that cliffhanger ending which we have to wait yet another year for to see it concluded.