At the end of the first “Hobbit” movie, “An Unexpected Journey,” Bilbo Baggins remarks to Thorin and his band of dwarves that “I do believe the worst is behind us.” Although the travelers have already survived several Orc attacks and a foray into a goblin kingdom beneath the mountains, unfortunately for poor Bilbo the worst is still very much yet to come. Many more dangers lie between them and the Lonely Mountain, where the dwarves hope to reclaim their homeland and their treasure from an ancient, evil dragon.
So far, 2013 has been a year for bigger and better sequels, and “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” continues this trend. While last year’s “An Unexpected Journey” was a fun, lighthearted adventure, “The Desolation of Smaug” draws closer to the epic scope of Peter Jackson’s original “Lord of the Rings” films, which the new Hobbit trilogy will serve as a prequel to. Although the film is almost three hours long, it clips along at a steady pace, including several well-choreographed action set pieces and the highly-anticipated appearance of the titular dragon.
In the first “Hobbit” film, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) convinces Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his company of dwarves to take the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) with them on their quest to the Lonely Mountain. Although the dwarves are skeptical, Gandalf discerns the hobbit is made of sterner stuff than the dwarves (or even Bilbo himself) realize. Bilbo soon proves his worth and even saves the dwarves from a spider attack at the beginning of “The Desolation of Smaug.” He later masterminds their escape from the dungeons of a woodland Elven king and matches wits with the terrifying Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).
However, Bilbo is beginning to be seduced by the dark power of the Ring, which he found in the caverns of the goblin kingdom. He continues to hide his discovery from Gandalf, and the temptation to use the Ring is growing more powerful. The Ring will play an increasingly important role in the events of the “Hobbit” prequels and, as fans already know, in the “Lord of the Rings.”
Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage and Ian McKellen once again turn in strong performances as Bilbo, Thorin and Gandalf, but there are several great newcomers, as well. Luke Evans is a welcome addition as the conflicted Bard, a man living in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain who decides to help Thorin but questions the wisdom of his quest. Lee Pace also is great as the scheming Thranduil, king of the woodland Elves. He’s a different type of Elf than the ones we’re used to seeing in the “Lord of the Rings”: more calculating than noble.
In some of the biggest departures from the book, Peter Jackson includes the Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) in “The Desolation of Smaug,” who was a major character from the “Lord of the Rings” but didn’t actually appear in the “Hobbit” novel. However, it was fun seeing Legolas again, and this change didn’t really bother me. Since Legolas’ father is Thranduil, it makes sense he would have been a part of the events in “The Hobbit.” Jackson’s bigger risk is inventing an entirely new character, the Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who serves as head of the Mirkwood Elven guard and possibly a love interest for Legolas. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the addition of a new character, but I think Jackson and Lilly pull it off. The character feels authentic, and Lilly brings spirit and elegance to the role.
Although there are some fun action sequences — the best, perhaps, being the dwarves’ escape down the river in barrels — the highlight of the film for me was the dragon Smaug. I’ve heard a couple reviewers dub him the greatest CGI dragon ever captured on film, and it’s hard to argue with this statement. The animation is stunning, made all the more impressive by Cumberbatch’s richly menacing vocal work.
If “An Unexpected Journey’s” weakness was that it perhaps needed just a little more action, “The Desolation of Smaug” may have the opposite problem. I would have liked to see just a tad more time devoted to character development, but it’s a minor complaint. The film is definitely a cliffhanger — with an even more abrupt ending than “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” — but that just made me all the more excited for the final chapter, “There and Back Again” next year.