And off we go! After An Unexpected Journey’s meandering start, the second part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy jumps straight back into the action, and doesn’t relent for the entire 2 hours 41 minutes running time.
This film isn’t nearly as hobbit orientated as the first one. Instead it comes together as much more of an ensemble piece as the action switches from the dwarves and Bilbo to Gandalf at Dol-Goldur, which was mentioned but not seen in the books. This is in fact one of multiple examples of Jackson taking certain liberties with the Tolkien mythology; he has even created a whole new character, a female elf named Tauriel, due to the complete lack of anything female in the book. While this is a much needed inclusion, the love triangle her character subsequently gets involved in between the dwarf Kili and Legolas (Orlando Bloom returning to his break-out role in another departure from the books) will certainly be less well received by die-hard fans. But the sub-plot doesn’t take up too much time and nothing has been sacrificed for the sake of it, so I’m inclined to give Jackson the benefit of the doubt.
Despite infringing somewhat on Tolkein’s mythology, Jackson’s alterations definitely don’t take anything away from the fact that this is a fantastic adventure. Visually, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug is a spectacle to behold, the facial movements sophisticated and the body truly huge and serpent like, proving that motion capture, not CGI, really could be the way forward. Proving once again that he does a good bad guy, Cumberbatch’s voice is perfect, deep and rumbling, dripping with the danger element he also brought to John Harrison in Star Trek. Fans of Sherlock looking for a reunion between Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman may be left disappointed as the interaction between the two isn’t particularly long or witty, but the strongest component here is in the visuals, and as ever Freeman gives an incredible performance. This is not the only scene worth noting; the barrel riding sequence in particular had me laughing with sheer joy and was worth the admission price alone.
However, what really makes this film better than the first is how it starts to fit in with the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. The ring we saw in the Hobbit book was merely an invisibility ring, with nothing of the darker connotations Tolkien would later bring to it when he wrote the sequel. Mostly, this is the way the ring was depicted in the first Hobbit film too, and as a consequence the stakes didn’t feel nearly as large or as epic as the Lord of the Rings, and the characters were merely running towards a mountain of gold, albeit with some Orcs on their tail. Here however, the darker side of the ring starts to show. This brings The Desolation of Smaug considerably closer in tone to the original trilogy, and as a result leaves you satisfied, entertained, and hugely looking forward to the final instalment.