'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' is a Major Improvement on the First Hobbit Film
It is that -- the stretching of a 300-page book into three feature films -- which caused the bloat that dragged the first film down. But those who were disappointed in An Unexpected Journey will be happy to know that there is action in this movie, in fact, there's a lot. This film picks up where the last one left off, with our merry band of dwarves (with a hobbit and a wizard in tow) continuing their journey to reclaim their lost homeland.
It is the difference between J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that caused Jackson some problems with An Unexpected Journey: while LOTR is an epic through and through, The Hobbit is more of a heist story, its strengths lie in the book's humor and the wit of its protagonist, Bilbo Baggins (played in the films by Martin Freeman). The book's highlights are not its battle scenes, but those where Bilbo uses his wit to overcome his foes, as he does with a pack of trolls, Gollum and, ultimately, with the dragon Smaug. In An Unexpected Journey, Jackson stumbled staging these scenes, but in The Desolation of Smaug there is some action for him to sink his teeth into. Battle sequences with a terrifying colony of giant spiders and a menacing pack of orcs are beautifully staged and reminiscent of the glory of Lord of the Rings. No one can shoot an elf hopping around, taking down enemies like Peter Jackson (though I'm not sure anyone has really tried).
To play to his strengths, Jackson and the film's three other screenwriters have taken some liberty with the source material, bringing back LOTR fan favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who does not appear at all in The Hobbit and inventing a new character entirely: Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), an ass-kicking elf. There is also a new love triangle involving Legolas, Tauriel and Kili, the sexiest (and tallest) dwarf. And while none of this subplot was imagined by Tolkien himself, it is a testament to Jackson that it feels like it could have been. Tauriel, herself, is compelling and it's nice to see a female character holding her own in this male-dominated franchise.
The film's highlight, though, is its third act, in which the dwarves finally make it to the Lonely Mountain and Bilbo comes face-to-face with the dragon Smaug (voiced by Freeman's Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch). Smaug himself is a wonder of CGI, as is the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor. Bilbo and Smaug's confrontation is delicious, a delicate as Bilbo maneuvers his way through mountains of discarded gold, seeking the Arkenstone, a gem precious to the dwarves he's aiding. The whole thing retains the humor of Tolkien's writing while creating an incredible tension.
But, alas, the film then ends on a sour note, with a cliffhanger so trite it actually moved one person at the screening I attended to yell, "Are you kidding me?!" as the credits rolled. But, then again, there are only so many ways to expand one book into three films; there is plenty of bloat in The Desolation of Smaug. Ultimately, The Desolation of Smaug is a success which will please fans of Tolkien's work as well as audiences who aren't familiar with the book.