As the second film of the prequel trilogy, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, is a welcomed return to the fantasy world of Middle Earth. Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey wizard, and thirteen dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield continue in their quest to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the Dwarf City of Erebor.
After what seemed like an emotionally vacant checklist of plot points in An Unexpected Journey, this time around Director Peter Jackson delivers a visual spectacle of sword and sorcery but with the ever-so-important emotional depth of character. Instead of providing ample screen time for all thirteen Dwarves, Jackson focuses on a select few. In doing so, he is able to recapture the hearts and imaginations of those audience members who became so enamored with the original Lord of the Rings films despite having never — and probably still haven’t — read J.R.R. Tolkien’s source material.
Taking center stage once again is Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who’s gone from being an “unexpected journeyman” to the “unexpected hero” as he always seems to be saving the day when the dwarves find themselves in a tight spot. This happens quite a few times when the film picks up right where it left off with the group being tracked and hunted by the ever-so-gruesome-looking Orcs. After finding refuge in the home of Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a new type of Middle Earth inhabitant whose brief appearance makes one hope that he’ll reappear in the final chapter, the group ventures into the dark forests of Mirkwood where they have a harrowing run-in with giant arachnophobia-inducing spiders. Saved by Fellowship favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and newcomer Tauriel (Evangaline Lily) the dwarves are then imprisoned by them and are left at the mercy of Elven King Thranduil (Lee Pace), who lacks the kindness Elrond once showed. Tauriel, however, does show a fondness for one of the dwarves, Kili (Aiden Turner), the tallest and easiest-on-the-eyes. As another forbidden romance begins to blossom in Middle Earth, Bilbo devises a way to escape from the Elvish prison. Adventuring closer to the Lonely Mountain with the assistance of Laketown’s resident outcast, Bard (Luke Evans), Thorin (Richard Armitage) and company arrive at the secret door and it’s time for Bilbo to do what he was hired for, burgle from the great dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Elsewhere, Gandalf’s (Ian McKellen) journey takes him to Dol Guldur where he discovers a darker and more powerful evil brewing.
The greatest strengths of this installment are the vivid visual storytelling and emotional investment placed on select characters. Middle Earth, with all of its creatures and myriad of settings explode on the screen in a visual feast hearty enough for a hungry troll. A highlight will undoubtedly be the wine barrel escape sequence where thrill and comedy come together perfectly in an action-packed white-water ride. With Bilbo and Gandalf providing the overarching plot structure of the trilogy, this film uses the two dwarves, Thorin and Kili, as the center points of this films’ story. As a result, we see the rest of the dwarves’ personalities shine through.
A surprising shortcoming, however, was the introduction of Smaug the Dragon and his meeting with Bilbo Baggins. It felt as though their conversation lacked any real substance as Bilbo spent most of his time pandering to the great dragon instead of engaging in a scholarly dialogue. Yet, this was only an issue because the parallel scene from the previous film between Gollum and Bilbo was so rich and nuanced that as an audience member, one would have expected better. Fortunately, the drab dialogue is masked by the stunning CGI mastery of the actual dragon itself. More time is spent ogling at his appearance than focusing on what is actually being said. Another aspect that feels a bit tedious is the lengthy amount of time spent on the character development and backstory of Bard. Those unfamiliar with the book may find it a bit drawn out since (in this film) there is very little payoff, but for those in the know it is for obvious reasons.
Overall, Peter Jackson and his team of writers (Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro) have done a fantastic job of extrapolating a wider-scoped story than what Tolkien had originally written as well focuses on those emotional touchstones that made the Lord of the Rings films such huge successes. With plenty of action and heart to reignite any movie-goers fandom as well as the expected fan service (did someone say Gimli?) for the unyielding franchise devotee, Peter Jackson has brought an emotional pulse back to Middle Earth that when the film ends on a drastic cliff-hanger you’ll be pining to return once more for the final act of The Hobbit.