After the frankly disappointing An Unexpected Journey, it’s a relief to report that the second film in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy is a definite improvement. The Desolation Of Smaug is faster, more exciting and simply more eventful.
Picking up where the first film left off, the band of Dwarves are hurrying to reach The Lonely Mountain before Durin’s Day, at which point the door can no longer be opened. When Gandalf realises that dark forces are afoot he is forced to leave them to make their way through Mirkwood alone, but Thorin has reason to believe that they’ll get no help from the Elves who live there. As they get closer to the mountain, Bilbo becomes increasingly brave and resourceful, but can anything prepare him for what lies underneath it?
The major complaint about An Unexpected Journey was, if we’re being honest, that nothing much really happened in it. Having seen Desolation, it would seem that all the action was being saved for this film.
Jackson kicks things off with a breathless chase across country that essentially leads straight into Mirkwood and its spiders, which in turn leads to meeting Thranduil (Lee Pace), Legolas (the returning Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). This first half of the film is absolutely thrilling, culminating in the brilliant barrel escape sequence. The dizzying, Donkey Kong-esque chase is up there with the most inventive action set-pieces that Peter Jackson has ever devised.
If anything, it almost feels as though the film moves out of Mirkwood too quickly. The halls of the Elven King themselves are a well-realised twist on Rivendell, with its roots descending deep into the Earth. Pace is obviously having fun with the cold-hearted, unpredictable Thranduil but, of the newcomers, it’s Lilly who makes the most impact. She manages to bring some life to her headstrong but big-hearted Elf captain Tauriel, making what could have been a stock-character feel fleshed out and compelling.
Once the halfway point is reached things do start to slow down. The depression of Laketown is laid on a little thick, as is the comedy corruption and calculation of Stephen Fry’s Master and his monobrowed henchman Alfrid (Ryan Gage). Fry’s performance is fun but it feels a little at odds with the bleak tone of the rest of the film, and Luke Evans’ strong, earnest turn as the upright Bard. Bard’s determination to do right by his townfolk puts him in opposition to our heroes, which gives us an interesting new perspective on the people Bilbo has allied himself with.
The development of Thorin is one of the film’s real strengths, and Richard Armitage gets better and better as his potential for darkness becomes more apparent. He’s not the only one who’s threatening to go to dark side, however, as Bilbo’s grip on the ring gets tighter and tighter, and vice versa.
Freeman also continues to excel. Watching Bilbo finding his courage, facing down the spiders of Mirkwood and attempting to escape from Smaug with his life provides the film its emotional core. Unfortunately, Jackson’s determination to keep us invested in what other characters are up to means that we too often leave Bilbo to see Legolas take on a band of orcs or find out what Gandalf has discovered. There’s nothing wrong with these sequences in isolation but too often they take us away from where we want to be.
The reason why this problem becomes so noticeable is because when we finally meet Smaug, there’s nothing else in the film that measures up to it. The creature design is excellent and Benedict Cumberbatch’s tones are the perfect fit, as his rumbled preening becomes a roar of rage. His confrontation with Bilbo is superb and we’ll just say that it’s certainly worth the wait.
Although The Desolation Of Smaug does suffer from the occasional wrong note and the pacing issues still haven’t quite been solved, this is a far superior second film that goes a very long way to fixing the problems of its predecessor.