Bilbo and the thirteen dwarves have escaped from the orcs on the banks of the Great River and made their way to the home of Beorn. From here they must brave the depths of Mirkwood and cross the Long Lake to finally reach Erebor and conclude their quest. Meanwhile, Gandalf is summoned south to investigate rumours of great evil stirring in the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur.
The Desolation of Smaug is the middle film of The Hobbit movie trilogy, Peter Jackson's prequel to the Lord of the Rings movies of a decade ago. Its predecessor, An Unexpected Journey, had a mixed reception last year with its lighter tone, great performances and occasional visual splendour being lauded but the overlong running time, over-use of CGI and jarring tonal variances being criticised.
The Desolation of Smaug is, thankfully, a stronger and more consistent movie than its predecessor. Indeed, it feels like Jackson has even listened to his critics, though with most of the trilogy in the can before the first film was released this seems impossible. Still, it may have affected his editing choices. The film is both punchier and pacier than the first movie. Action beats and quieter moments of character-building support one another more organically and there's a distinct lack of totally time-wasting, filler material: no overlong goblin king japery or random moments of erinaceidae resuscitation here. That's not to say there aren't moments that could have been trimmed (most of the action sequences tend to go on a bit longer than they should, though not to the extent of the likes of Man of Steel or The Matrix Reloaded), but generally you can see what Jackson was aiming for and most of his ideas - this time around anyway - are actually good. Sequences that could have bogged down the movie are surprisingly brief: the interlude with Beorn (thankfully much more convincing in motion than the early photographs) is so quick, to the point, effective and then dispensed with that it's hard to believe that Peter Jackson directed the sequence. Presumably a 35-minute version of the scene will be on the extended cut.
Similarly, the trip through Mirkwood unfolds at a rapid, crisp pace, with montages used to depict the wearying journey rather than having it just go on and on. The passage through Mirkwood is one of the areas where the book slows to a crawl and it's rather pleasing that this is one area that the film handles more effectively than the novel. Jackson employs some cleverness - or cliche, depending on your POV - to depict the talking spiders by having the Ring translate their hisses into speech. This idea is not incompatible with what was shown in Rings (with Frodo first hearing Sauron's Black Speech and then what he was saying in Westron) and handily gets around what appeared to be a tonal incompatibility between The Hobbit and Rings (talking animals are present in the former but not in the latter). Jackson again strikes gold by suggesting that Bilbo's surprising viciousness in combat is driven by the Ring and layers some moments of internal struggle into the film, as Bilbo is shown being surprised by this new side to himself, but willing to use it when things get rough. This is a darker, more edgy Bilbo than we saw in the first film and Martin Freeman relishes the chance to play him.
The visit to Thranduil's realm is where the film threatens to go off the rails. Intriguing ideas (like Thranduil being hideously scarred from a previous battle with a dragon but masks it with magic) are presented here and Evangeline Lilly debuts as new character Tauriel, the captain of Thranduil's guard. Tauriel is a more earthly warrior-elf than Liv Tyler's Arwen from the first trilogy, less likely to bog down in emotional self-examination and instead get out and take action. Lilly - who had retired from acting after concluding her role on Lost - provides a stronger performance than some of the material warrants: her flirtation with Kili (Aidan Turner) only really works because both actors sell it so well but some of the dialogue is painful. Fortunately, it's less interminable a relationship than Aragorn and Arwen's constant angsting in the original trilogy.
Less successful is Orlando Bloom's reintroduction as Legolas. Much as the make-up and effects teams do their best, they can't totally hide the fact that Bloom is a decade older (and, a pain I can relate to, just ever so slightly heavier). In particular, he seems to be wearing some contact lenses that look slightly unnatural and make him look a bit more ethereal than in the original film, something I found distracting. Legolas also has no real role in the film: what should have been perhaps a background cameo in the elven-king's hall has been fleshed out into an arse-kicking action hero, the character who took down a mumakil singled-handedly in the original trilogy here turned up to eleven. The scenes where he's using the dwarves' heads as stepping stones to cross a river whilst shooting down multiple orcs are less 'badass' and more 'unconvincing' due to the amount of obvious CGI in use. A scene where he mocks a picture of Gloin's son is also amusing until the film decides to spell out the irony of that son being Legolas's future sparring partner Gimli in neon glittering letters fifty feet tall. Yeah, we got it, Peter.
The Laketown interlude works surprisingly well in the film.
A more surprisingly successful decision is the one to flesh out Laketown. What was a brief waystop in the novel turns into a full episode in the film, complete with scheming intrigue between Stephen Fry's Master of the Lake (not a role that stretches him, but one he plays to the hilt anyway) and Luke Evans's well-played Bard the Bowman. There's also a potentially controversial decision to split the dwarves up here into two camps, but this actually works out well, giving us a leg in both locations where the inevitable showdown with Smaug will unfold.
The film's climax - or the closest we get to one - involves the showdown between Bilbo and Smaug in the caverns of Erebor. This goes pretty well, with Benedict Cumberbatch bringing the requisite level of menace to the dragon, up until the confusing decision is made to give the dwarves an epic battle of their own with Smaug. This results in much running around and jumping on machinery in an over-clever attempt to kill the beast. It appears this scene stems from a perceived (but unnecessary) need to have the dwarves more active in the battle with Smaug, but all it does is reduce the threat of the dragon. Given the flashbacks in the first film showed him storming the fortress and slaughtering hundreds or thousands of dwarves in minutes, the ease with which nine dwaves give him the run-around makes him look like an idiot and the concluding scenes (which are from the novel, where they are much more logical) unfathomable.
Spliced between these scenes are why this had to be a trilogy in the first place: the new storyline where Gandalf travels to Dol Guldur to investigate the mysterious 'Necromancer'. These scenes would be creepier if the Rings-seasoned audience wasn't sick of ancient, mysterious and creepy towers by this point. Gandalf's face-to-face confrontation with the Necromancer is also rather disappointing, and carries less weight than his fight with Saruman in Fellowship of the Ring (the use of Gandalf creating a magical force shield complete with lighting and strobing effects is also rather unnecessary compared to the more subtle effect he uses to stand against the balrog in the original trilogy). Watching through these scenes, one can't but help feel that Tolkien's decision to keep the Necromancer as an off-page threat was the correct one.
Ultimately, The Desolation of Smaug (***½) is more watchable, drags far less and is less twee than its predecessor. The new characters and actors all do great work, the effects are better and more of the dwarves are given their moments in the sun (even Bombur takes a level in badass at one point and turns into an orc-killing machine). New locations, characters and subplots - even non-Tolkien ones - are inserted into the story with more skill than I think many were expecting, and Jackson is able to tie most of the narratives together satisfyingly (the Dol Guldur strand excepted, which still feels too disconnected from everything else). But where the film comes undone - to the point of triggering audible gasps of horror and then anger from the audience I watched the film with - is the exceptionally bad choice of where to end the film. The last act of the film builds and builds to an epic showdown...only to push it off at the last minute to the next film. If this was in just the main storyline it could perhaps be borne, but no less than five plots and subplots are all left on cliffhangers for the final movie, robbing this one of any sense of satisfying climax or catharsis. It's a poor editing choice by Jackson, one which will presumably leave the next film with a very muddled and anti-climactic opening.
The Desolation of Smaug is on general release now and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray, again twice over, in 2014.