Martin Freeman-Richard Armitage-Hobbit-Desolation of Smaug-680
Photo by Mark Pokorny - Courtesy of Warner Bros.

First, the good news: this is a vast improvement over the first installment in the latest Peter Jackson trilogy. It’s still a vast collection of climaxes, but the pace is much livelier and the action set-pieces are truly impressive. I suppose most moviegoers already know that the film ends with a cliffhanger in lieu of a resolution. It seems a shame to build to such a crescendo and then cut to a black screen, but that’s the nature of this three-film odyssey. Jackson and his collaborators (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, who was originally set to direct The Hobbit) intend for us to wait two years to see how things are going to turn out.

Ian McKellen-Hobbit-Desolation of Smaug-680
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Having established Martin Freeman as the reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins in An Unexpected Journey, little time is spent exploring his character this time around. He is still the moving force behind this odyssey, prodded by Gandalf the Grey, but action propels the story, and the sense of discovery is reserved for new characters who show up along the way. Evangeline Lilly and Luke Evans make a strong impression in their action-oriented roles, while some old favorites join them in fighting the bad guys: Orlando Bloom as Legolas from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in one crucial sequence, and Cate Blanchett, in a cameo appearance as Galadriel. As before, it’s difficult to derive much empathy for the indistinct dwarves who accompany Bilbo. Only Ken Stott manages to establish a clear personality for his character, Balin.

The motion capture technique that gave birth to Gollum, who appeared in the first Hobbit outing, yields an even more formidable character this time: a fearsome dragon named Smaug, enacted and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. As Smaug is the final obstacle standing between our heroes and the reclaiming of Prince Thorin’s homeland, he plays a vital role in this part of the saga and dominates the final portion of the movie.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The action is exceedingly well staged throughout The Desolation of Smaug, with a lengthy attack along a rushing river that’s a virtual master class in how to do it right. The hand-to-hand combat that fills the movie is seamlessly integrated into a make-believe world created by the magicians at Jackson’s WETA workshop.

I must confess that while I wasn’t bored, as I was in the first chapter of the Hobbit trilogy, I still had trouble connecting with this distended saga on an emotional level. Those action highlights got my blood racing, for which I’m grateful, but I wish they were in the context of better storytelling.