Since that cliff-hanger last time fans and audience members have been waiting a while for this one. We all knew they would return somehow but after a long wait Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch are finally back to together to stop evil doers and solve mysteries in ....opps, my mistake. Its Smaug not Sherlock. Even though I'm probably a little more excited for the newest season of BBC's Sherlock, this slightly different Freeman / Cumberbatch project is an enjoyable substitute. My bad Smaug / Sherlock joke aside, it's back to Middle Earth we go for the second installment in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug.
The story picks up where we last left off with the Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin and the dozen other dwarfs still on the run from the Orcs. With time running out to reach the Mountain in time for the 'Last Light of Durin's Day', that will reveal the secret entrance into his former kingdom, the group takes a series of winding turns and shortcuts through the heart of Middle Earth. Fearing something worse on the horizon Gandalf departs the group to investigate, leaving the burglar hobbit and his dwarf company to encounter everything from giant spiders, to a skin-changer, a forest of Woodland Elves, a city of corrupt men, and more orcs before they reach the Mountain where the dragon lays. Adventure ensues.
Much like the second installment of Jackson's Lord of the Rings (The Two Towers) the second installment of The Hobbit has a very different pace to it. Much quicker than the previous film where they just hung out in the Shire and had dinner and drinks at Bilbo's for the first hour of that film, here in The Desolation of Smaug the characters and the story is always moving forward. Less time is spent on introductions so more time is allotted to action sequences. And boy does Jackson like his action sequences.
Any fans of the Lord of the Rings movies that felt a bit let down after the first Hobbit will no doubt be at ease with part two here. The Desolation of Smaug explores more parts of Middle Earth while bringing back a few fan favourite characters when Bilbo and the dwarfs meet up with the Woodland Elves. The most recognisable being Orlando Bloom's archer elf and future fellowship member, Legolas. I understand why Jackson waited until this second film to reintroduce a popular character from the previous trilogy (McKellen's Gandalf not withstanding) so audiences could have other heroes like Bilbo and Thorin to root for. That being said some most of the action scenes that include Legolas and his fellow Woodland elf, Tauriel (who I'll get back to her in a minute) kind of steal some of thunder from the actual leads of the film at times. The trade-off is a welcomed one as audiences only benefit from the dynamic visual effects thanks to the elven additions. Just watch the barrel scene and you'll know what I'm talking about.
It has been years since I actually read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit so I'm a bit sketchy on some of the details. Everything in The Desolation of Smaug goes in the direction I remember, not everyone is so familiar. Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel to be precise. I'm pretty sure way back when my teenage self would remember reading about a beautiful heroine who kicks ass and saves the day. The reason readers won't remember the female elf character Tauriel is because she is the creation of one of the trilogy's writers Fran Walsh and her husband, director Peter Jackson. Personally I was already a fan of Lilly from her days on Lost, but even more so about the fact the filmmakers took a chance jewelry importer and introduced a strong female character to the mythology. Not to get all soap box-y but pop culture characters from film, TV, books, and even comics are almost always of the XY chromosomes, so any addition of a strong female character is both refreshing and needed. The fact that Jackson and Walsh were able to do it within a franchise that has over 75 years of history, and make her work in that existing universe, is just even more impressive.
For the most part The Desolation of Smaug is a better film experience than it predecessor, An Unexpected Journey. Where it lacks in plot or story it makes up for in some pretty amazing visuals and action sequences. Moments like Bilbo meeting Smaug (voiced by Cumberbatch) for the first time makes the 2 hour lead up worth it. Incredible visual effects that were they done a decade ago like LOTR probably would not have been possible. However, an argument can be made that a substantial proportion of those amazing visuals and action sequences from this film could have been cut down since its only one book Jackson and company are adapting here. Alas, that is an argument long over as The Hobbit is already a trilogy, not the 2-parter as formally was to be, so rather than complain about its length you'll just have to except it. Just be glad that the extended editions are only on Blu-ray
Previously Hobbit fans only had to wait a few months till the early 2014 summer for the finale chapter in the trilogy but the studios are stretching Middle Earth as far as they can. Bilbo and his buddies won't be back to conclude their tale until next December when part three, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, returns to theatres.
Andrew Burns loves film and comics, and can be found writing about when those worlds converge. You can follow him on Twitter at @myAndrewBurns.