Directed by Peter Jackson.
2013. Rated PG-13, 161 minutes.
Like most of our trips to Middle Earth, The Desolation of Smaug begins in media res. Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) is still tagging along with a band of dwarves on their quest to reclaim land and treasure from the slumbering dragon Smaug (Cumberbatch). He's also still hiding the one ring to rule them all in his pocket and using it whenever the need arises. Along the way, our heroes encounter many setbacks and roadblocks. Our favorite wizard, Gandalf (McKellen) wanders off to tend to some business pertaining to the quest, but separate from it. Peter Jackson doing Tolkien stuff ensues.
The bulk of the movie is essentially the same as its predecessor, An Unexpected Journey. There are some key differences, of course. The first, and most obvious one is that there is no setup. Like Jackson's most famous set of films, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is shaping up to be a trilogy in raw form, meant to be viewed as one long continuous film. It is assumed, and rightfully so, that almost no one would watch this without having seen the prior installation. Another difference is the addition of a few new characters whose motivations are of significance. The main one is Bard the Bowman (Evans) who lives in the village that the dwarves hope to reclaim. He's the one guy who doesn't think waking up Smaug is a good idea. Early on, before he really understands what's going on, he helps the dwarves in inventive ways.
Where The Hobbit differs from The Lord of the Rings as a series is that the protagonist is really a day-saving sidekick. There are some asides developing Bilbo's relationship with the magical ring. However, this is really about the quest of the dwarves. Bilbo is just along for the ride. What happens is the dwarves trek, trek, trek until they get into a precarious situation which they invariably can't get themselves out of. During all of this, Bilbo has gotten separated from the pack and returns to save his travel-mates. Rinse. Repeat.
My implication that this is a movie that plays on a loop for two and a half hours might sound like damning criticism. Quite to the contrary, it works, marvelously in this case. Peter Jackson keeps his episodes concise, therefore getting us to the action scenes much quicker than in An Unexpected Journey. The run-time is also shorter. If you're not familiar with Jackson, two and a half hours is downright brief. It actually feels a bit shorter than that because things are actually happening. Part of this is because he has to find ways to stretch a fairly short book into three movies. Pumping up the action was a nice choice. The endless exposition of the first movie made three hours feel like four. the situation wasn't helped by the fact that it was also repetitive. For this chapter, that problem has been largely eradicated.
Other standards for our journeys into and through Middle Earth are upheld nicely. Though most of the characters are one note, they are all played very well. Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, the one "she-elf" of note, stands out and not just because of her gender. Sir Ian McKellen continues to fully inhabit the wizard Gandalf while a number of the dwarves get their moment in the sun. Benedict Cumberbatch is also fun as our dragon. Speaking of Smaug, he is representative of the other major asset of Jackson's movies - the visuals. Once again, the director has given us a splendid looking piece of cinema. the world he depicts is expansive and diverse. Combine the sheer physical beauty of the film with a story that moves with purpose and we get a very enjoyable experience that easily outdoes its predecessor.
MY SCORE: 7.5/10