Going into "The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug" with reduced expectations helped a lot. The movie has all the same problems as the first installment - way too little of Bilbo, way too many cameos, and all the issues that resulted from trying to stretch roughly a hundred pages of story into three hours of blockbuster filmmaking. However, this time at least the introductions and much of the exposition had already been taken care of, and our heroes are firmly in mid-adventure, so there weren't any problems keeping the story's momentum going. Also, the high points of “Smaug” were a good deal higher than “Unexpected Journey.”
When last we saw Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and Gandalf (Ian McKellan), they were being pursued by orcs and still a long way from the Lonely Mountain, their ultimate destination. The journey takes them to Mirkwood, where they meet the hostile Wood Elves, led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace), and then to Lake-town, inhabited by humans, where they enlist the help of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). Bilbo continues to the power of the ring that he won from Gollum, and readies himself to go up against Smaug the Dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch), unaware of the ring’s connection to the dark power that Gandalf continues to investigate.
The biggest departure from the book, and for some viewers the biggest headache will be the return of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, who along with a new female warrior elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) get quite a lot of screentime. There’s really no justification for them to be part of the story, and Tauriel seems like a much too convenient excuse to shoehorn a romance into the works, but it doesn’t come off that badly. The elves are largely limited to action sequences, and Tauriel does have some chemistry with the young dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) who catches her eye. She’s fun to watch - essentially another Arwen, but with more fancy weaponry.
Characters that do come straight from Tolkien don’t necessarily work any better. There’s a curious digression to have a few scenes with Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a “skin-changer,” which doesn’t amount to anything except that it means a favorite character from the original novel wasn’t left out. Bard gets an expanded part, which paints him as an outsider in Lake-town, but it feels like the writers are trying too hard to get the audience to view him as a hero figure without making him properly heoric, similar to their missteps with Thorin. Fortunately we see less of other problematic characters like Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) and the various orc warlords this time, and they’re deployed in a more tolerable fashion. Gandalf’s expanded subplot even builds to a nice climax after all the meandering from the first movie.
Performances are pretty strong all around. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo gets more to do, Richard Armitage is growing on me, Ian McKellan’s Gandalf is as much of a delight as ever, and I was surprised at how much I liked Evangeline Lily as Tauriel after bracing myself for the worst. I found that most of the new faces weren’t nearly as effective, though. There’s something a little off about Thranduil and Bard - or maybe it’s just that the film versions of the characters have taken liberties with them that I haven’t quite gotten my head around yet. As for the return of Orlando Bloom, he honestly doesn’t get that much to do and I spent most of his screentime marveling at how different he looked from his last appearance in “Lord of the Rings” despite not seeming to have aged a day.
The movie’s main event, and what I’ve been waiting years to see, is the full realization of the dragon Smaug, a wonderful CGI creature whose interactions with Bilbo Baggins were worth waiting for. Jackson insists on adding action scenes here where none existed, but they’re well executed spectacle of the best kind. Most of the action has been improved in this movie, more well grounded, and more focused on character. Two other standout sequences are Bilbo’s fight with a group of spiders and an escape involving the heroes riding barrels down a raging river. I should also point out that most of the little quibbles that I had with visuals in “There and Back Again” because of the use of the 48 fps projection have mostly been fixed in “Desolation of Smaug.” The picture looks absolutely gorgeous.
In short, I was able to turn my brain off long enough to enjoy the new “Hobbit” movie as an action blockbuster and stop comparing it to “Lord of the Rings.” I still think that this new trilogy has been severely compromised by stretching it out to three movies and shifting the focus away from Bilbo, but at least they’re making improvements and have translated many of the best bits of Tolkein to the screen in truly epic fashion. I still can’t name more than three of the dwarves and I still think Peter Jackson included far too many callbacks to the previous trilogy, but I really enjoyed “Smaug” and have much higher hopes for the finale, “There and Back Again” coming in December.