Despite a prologue scene that tries to fill in some backstory (and remind viewers about this big quest that the main characters are on), there’s no fooling anyone about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug being the middle segment of a movie trilogy. Still trying to live down comparisons to its more-epic older brother, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the second instalment in this series is nevertheless a whole lot of fantasy-film fun. If you haven’t seen the previous film(s) you might not understand the plot threads, the setting or the characters, but there are still many things to enjoy. That being said, you’re still better off watching the first (four) film(s) before catching this one. (While we’re on that topic, I might mention a few things that would be spoilers for those previous films as well — fair warning.)
When last we left our band of diminutive heroes, I could have sworn that giant eagles had helped them escape from pursuing orcs and also make great progress on their quest towards the abandoned Dwarven kingdom at Erebor. However, once we find them again, the orcs are hot on their heels (so I’m not sure what gives — maybe it’s those giant wolves that the orcs ride that helped them gain such ground)! In this movie, we spend a lot more time with the Elves — with the welcome return of LOTR fave, Legolas (Orlando Bloom reprises the role that made him famous), and the addition of Tauriel (played by Evangeline Lilly of the TV series Lost) and king Thranduil (played by Lee Pace of the TV series Pushing Daisies) since the dwarves need to pass through the Elven domain to get where they’re going. Humans also play a bigger role in this movie as the dwarves end up in Laketown (a town situated in the middle of a lake) at the mercy of the human community and one local boatsman guy. While I definitely could have done without Laketown and the human element in the story (I felt that way also when I was reading the book), which came across as a cheap, cartoonish, Game of Thrones knockoff, I definitely enjoyed the elves. Despite the fact that each character seemed to have a different accent (Thranduil was mostly American!) they were all so cool with their elegant, Art Nouveau style, and their finesse at swordplay and shooting arrows, it made me wish that there was a movie just about the elves. Tauriel was a character created for the movies, but she added a sweet bit of romance with her crush on one of the dwarves (Kili, of course, the best looking of the bunch, played by Aidan Turner). Her interest in Kili leads her to follow and help them (with Legolas in tow). I am super-thankful to Peter Jackson that they did not play up the love triangle aspect, though, as that would have poured some unwanted sap on the whole movie!
Frankly, not a lot happens in this movie until near the end when things get set up for the final film. Nevertheless, there was a stunt-acular sequence in the middle as the dwarves make their daring escape from the custody of the elves. Bilbo (again played by the wonderful Martin Freeman) has the clever plan to get passed the fortifications by setting them all adrift in barrels that get flushed down some white water rapids. When they are pursued by a horde of waiting orcs, it’s an incredibly choreographed set piece where the dwarves are tossing axes to each other between barrels, fending off the orcs running down the shore or on overhanging bridges. Meanwhile, Tauriel and Legolas are also fleet-footedly bounding from rock to barrel to whatever, shooting arrows at the orcs to help their captives (the dwarves). For a moment, Legolas is even humourously standing on two dwarves in barrels as he fires arrows at orcs on shore. It’s just the kind of scene that clearly required a lot of CGI magic, but is swashbucklingly fun to watch.
Since the entire three-film Hobbit trilogy was adapted from a book much thinner than any one of the Lord of the Rings single volumes, Jackson had to fill time with a number of things that didn’t really seem warranted. For one, there was a lot of time spent with Beorn, the skin changer, who was definitely in the book, but in my opinion added very little to the movie. Similarly, there has been a building side story since the first Hobbit movie about “The Necromancer”, the evil sorceror behind the orcs and other unpleasant winds blowing through Middle Earth. Last movie it was kind of an interesting way of connecting the two trilogies (since it was blatantly obvious that it was going to turn out to be Sauron — the baddie from LOTR) but this time around, it seemed that Gandalf’s pursuit of The Necromancer was just drawing out the mystery for something we in the audience had already solved ages ago. Seeing “Sauron: the early years” was not very interesting, but it did give Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey another chance to be whipped around and pinned against a wall of rock; and it allowed for some cool visuals that combined Sauron’s burning eye look with his spiky, black armour look (I think you’ve got to see it to understand).
Last, but definitely not least were the scenes with the titular Smaug. When I heard that the hugely popular Benedict Cumberbatch was going to be the voice of the dragon, I was very excited because he has a great voice. The CGI dragon was nicely done, but you’ve probably seen other such dragons before (Did you watch the Harry Potter movies?), but this dragon is intelligent and clever, with a whole lot of attitude, and Cumberbatch did an excellent job delivering that personality to the CGI. While I feel like his scenes bantering with Bilbo went on a tad long (and was not nearly as interesting as the similar scene between Bilbo and Gollem from the previous film), the filmmakers did a really good job producing those scenes altogether. They make for a great climax as they end the movie with a little bit of a cliffhanger for the third film.
Anyone who’s seen the first film should have already realized that this is not another LOTR. With that kind of lowered expectations, I had a great time with the first movie and now with the second. There were parts that dragged on a bit, but most of us are just excited to see it all brought to life on screen. Adding some great performances and fun characters is only icing on the cake. As a middle piece, The Desolation of Smaug may not be something to stand on its own compared to the other movies, but was good enough for an enjoyable time at the cinema (4 out of 5).