Having escaped from the Misty Mountains, Bilbo (Freeman), Thorin (Armitage) and the company of dwarves continue their quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from the dragon Smaug (Cumberbatch.
Noticeably more urgent and agreeable than The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the second chapter in Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy is a definite improvement over the first. With the exhausting set-up out of the way, it hits the ground running and picks up the pace from the word go, moving with a greater sense of purpose and forward momentum throughout. As always, the set design is impeccable and the world-building remains second to none, while the addition of a few fresh locations (such as the water-based settlement of Lake-Town) breathes new life into Middle-Earth. Less child-friendly than last time, it’s littered with creative violence, twitching corpses and enough giant spiders to give Peter Parker nightmares, as Jackson opts for a darker tone that is closer to the original Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
However, that’s not to say that the film is up to the same towering standard. Despite journeying into new territory, various plot-points prove familiar (Gandalf leaving mid-mission, hidden doors requiring riddles to be solved) and certain scenes feel somewhat unnecessary. Though the set pieces are fun and inventively staged, the truth is that they’re often excessive and overly busy at the same time. See, for example, a relentless chase sequence where our heroes escape down river in a procession of empty wine barrels. Undoubtedly, The Desolation Of Smaug is pacier and more action-packed than its predecessor (no time for washing the dishes here), but the characters aren’t in the same league as the original fellowship gang. That said, Martin Freeman is hugely impressive once again as everyone’s favourite hobbit, proving especially remarkable during a couple of comparatively small scenes that demonstrate how the ring is starting to take hold. The moment where Bilbo nearly admits to finding it, in particular, is far more powerful and affecting than any of the lengthy action sequences. It’s frustrating, then, that Bilbo isn’t given the focus or attention he deserves, as the increasingly resourceful halfling is often marginalised or lost in the film’s chaotic shuffle.
It doesn’t help, of course, that The Desolation Of Smaug feels more like a middle chapter than The Two Towers did, with few characters receiving satisfying arcs as the film builds towards the third and final instalment next year. Though Richard Armitage is appropriately glowering as Thorin Oakenshield, the majority of dwarves in his company remain interchangeable and largely anonymous. The dragon Smaug, meanwhile, is a fantastic visual creation (benefiting from Benedict Cumberbatch’s suitably sneery vocals), but yet he is not especially memorable or interesting as a character. As for Orlando Bloom’s returning archer Legolas, he’s saddled with distracting contact lenses and so much orc-slaying bad-assery that it eventually becomes slightly repetitive. More successful is Evangeline Lilly as female woodland elf Tauriel (and not just because she looks great with pointed ears), while Luke Evans proves to be the best new addition as Bard the Bowman.
While The Desolation Of Smaug is a definite improvement over An Unexpected Journey, it’s still let down by a few of the same niggles. Freeman is hugely impressive, but Bilbo isn’t given the focus or attention he deserves.