The Desolation of Smaug picks up right where An Unexpected Journey left off with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitrage) and the dwarves of Erebor on a quest to reclaim their homeland. The dwarves are being pursued by a band of Orcs who wish to stop them, and must go through elvish territory. After an escape from the elves, Bilbo and the dwarves arrive at Lake Town, and finally, The Desolation of Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is on his own quest to find an evil Necromancer, and save the world from the evils of a very notorious villain in the Lord of the Rings universe.
This film is better than An Unexpected Journey. There's less talking, less meandering and a lot more character and plot development. However, it doesn't start that way. The first hour of The Desolation of Smuag is essentially an extension of An Unexpected Journey, with the dwarves running around in the woods, narrowly escaping every threat in their path, and randomly encountering characters from Lord of the Rings. Once the action hits Lake Town is when Jackson lets loose, and when The Desolation of Smaug becomes a good movie. For that first hour though, this movie goes absolutely nowhere.
Let's talk more about the first hour of this film. It's pretty terrible. The Desolation of Smaug begins with a flashback, which actually has some interesting information in it. Then, we go back to the present day. The film begins with a useless chase scene, followed by an encounter with a bear/man named Beorn, and then the action hits Mirkwood. All of these scenes are completely inconsequential and that includes the things that happen in the elvish land. The Desolation of Smaug could have one chase scene, followed by the barrel escape (a truly fantastic action scene) and the film would be no worse. It actually would have been much better. The additions of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) add nothing to the story but an entirely unnecessary subplot. I wish that Jackson would only keep the things that were necessary to the story he's trying to tell, because when the scenes advance the plot, the movie is so much better.
The second half of the film is leagues better than the first half. It still has its shortcomings (too many subplots attempting to set up Lord of the Rings), but the film starts to go somewhere and becomes ridiculously entertaining. After the dwarves escape in barrels from King Thranduil (Lee Pace) and the elves, they run into a merchant from Lake Town named Bard (Luke Evans). The dwarves travel back to Lake Town and finally reach The Lonely Mountain after nearly four and a half hours of film. The film comes alive after the barrel escape, and actually manages to recapture the feeling of Lord of the Rings. That's an accomplishment.
The character development in this film is also much stronger than in the first one. For the entire runtime of the first film, I can tell you with certainty that I never cared about a single one of the characters. While The Desolation of Smaug still didn't make me care THAT much about the characters, it still made me care about them enough that I felt connected to the movie. Bilbo Baggins has become a very brave and interesting hero and is a lot of fun to watch. This film also spends a bit more time on the quest at hand, which made me more invested in it. All in all, Jackson developed the characters very well in this film.
The actors fit their characters quite well at this point. Armitrage has the fiery determination of Thorin down pat, and Freeman is quite good in the role of Bilbo as well. The best character addition to the plot is certainly Luke Evans' Bard. I really enjoyed his character, and thought that Evans played him well. Cumberbatch is also great as Smaug and he brings the dragon to life in a way that I'm not sure anyone else could.
Finally, the technical aspects of this movie are brilliant. All of the sets are exquisitely made, and the visual effects are excellent as well. The Hobbit trilogy finally has a look and feel of its own, and Jackson mixes the CGI with practical sets very well in this film. The visual effects on Smaug are quite fantastic, and are probably some of the best that I've seen.
Despite all of the things that Jackson improves in The Desolation of Smaug, there still are a lot of shortcomings. The ending is a slight problem, but the fact that unnecessary subplots are thrown in is a much bigger problem. The Desolation of Smaug focuses mostly on the dwarves, but there are also subplots involving Tauriel and the elves, along with subplots for Gandalf, Radagast, and Kili (one of the dwarves). Some of them work well. The subplot involving a mortal wound to Kili is interesting and gives you some perspective on what's happening at Lake Town while the dwarves are at the mountain. However, all of the other subplots are pretty unnecessary. They bog down an otherwise very good film, all for the sake of building to The Lord of the Rings. And we've already seen that film.
All in all, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a good film, and a step-up over An Unexpected Journey. It has a pretty awful first hour, but it regains steam after an exhilarating action scene, and keeps that momentum going for most of the film. There's still a lot of extra material that doesn't need to be there, but there's enough good in Desolation for be to give it a positive mark. I think that Lord of the Rings fans will enjoy it even more than me, but I think that general audiences will enjoy this one more as well. It's got a good cliffhanger ending that will leave you wanting more.
THE FINAL GRADE: B (7.2/10)