The Hobbit: The Desolation of SmaugDirected by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyesn, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro

Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry

It’s been a year since Peter Jackson dropped us back into Middle Earth with  “An Unexpected Journey”. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the first film or the decision to split the novel into three movies but it still delivered on enough promise to make way for worthy follow-up films. This film looks to build on the extended story presented in the first movie by bringing in characters like Legolas and Tauriel while introducing other classic characters like Bard and Smaug. Can this film make a stronger case for our journey back to Middle Earth or is this new trilogy stuck to the greater shadows of Lord of the Rings?

“The Desolation of Smaug” picks up where the last movie left off with Bilbo(Martin Freeman), Thorin(Richard Armitage), and the band of dwarves traveling across middle earth and into the woods of Mirkwood. It doesn’t take long before the dwarves run into the elusive elves of Mirkwood lead by the king Thranduil(Lee Pace) and his soldiers Legolas(Orlando Bloom) and Tariel(Evangeline Lilly). On their journey to reach the Lonely Mountain, the group encounters other characters including Bard the Bowman(Luke Evans) and eventually the infamous dragon Smaug(Benedict Cumberbatch). The road is filled with a surprising number of antagonizing characters, deadly road blocks, and terrifying secrets.  As our main adventurers travel to the mountain, Gandalf(Ian McKellen) makes his own journey to investigate the greater evil that is emerging in Middle Earth.

This is definitely act two of a three part story with the action picking up immediately and the film ending with one of the biggest cliffhangers of the year.  The pacing is much tighter than the first film thanks to a much better balance between all of the exposition, character developments, and action set pieces. The story of the sequel also finds far more creative ways to show off its characters. Characters like Bilbo and Gandalf may be taking on a lesser role in this film than in the first, but this allows characters like Thorin, Legolas,  Bard, and even Kili(who is Kili? surprise!) to become more than just flat characters.

The movie is filled with action set pieces that keep things moving. One of the most enjoyable and most exciting sequences I’ve seen all year is a scenario where the dwarves are floating down river in barrels as they attempt to escape the orcs and Legolas does his thing(you know….being an insane orc killing machine). It’s a ton of fun and brought out laughs in ways I didn’t know I had. If there’s one thing this movie does well beyond all else, it’s decapitating orcs. In Lord of the Rings it was a rare and joyous occurrence to see straight up beheaded orcs, but with this entry it looks like Peter Jackson is taking the gloves off and letting the blood spill.

“The Desolation of Smaug” is a gorgeous movie with its continually impressive landscapes, brilliantly animated set pieces, and overall impressive aesthetic. Middle Earth has never looked more fantastical and full of vibrance! The movie is absolutely breathtaking and at times even impressed with its use of 3D. I’m not the biggest fan of Jackson’s decision to rely more heavily on CGI. Like “An Unexpected Journey”, the practical makeup effects used on orcs and other creatures remains CGI(a decision that was made across the board for all the films). The CGI has a way of taking me out of the movie which is no small gripe with a fantasy which is usually about immersing the viewer in a fantastical world. It’s not a cardinal sin, but more traditional visual choices would have enhanced and already stunning movie.

Peter Jackson rains in his mastered direction of Middle Earth with ease and finesse. Aside from the overuse of CGI, I’d say Jackson has filmmaking about Middle Earth down to an art form. The movie finds a pitch perfect balance between humor, edginess,  and character plotting. With so many new subplots and characters to introduce in an already seemingly over-dense story, Jackson does a great job at juggling the seemingly infinite number of balls he has in the air. His direction is the glue that holds the picture together.

The fundamental question that fans and critics alike have been asking throughout the entire production of this trilogy is whether or not this should have been three movies long. The first film felt overlong, aimless, and full of unnecessary exposition which seemed to point to the idea that The Hobbit should have been one long epic, but then “Desolation of Smaug” comes out and is packed to the brim with engaging character arcs, a flowing story, and a great climax the leads directly to the next film. Jackson’s decision to split this up three ways remains an ambiguous one, but I can gladly say that the second outing is bigger, more sprawling, and has left me excited to see how the last film unfolds.

Overall “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is not the next Lord of the Rings. It is not a great example of classic fantasy, but it is a highly entertaining return to a world many of us fell in love with years ago thanks to Tolkien and Peter Jackson. The return of fan favorites like Legolas are welcome nostalgia blasts and new characters like Bard and Tauriel shake up the dynamics enough to keep things feeling fresh. It’s a thrilling ride through your childhood imagination of fantasy with each scene building off of the other. In the end this is one Lord of the Rings fans must see on the big screen even if it’s not the next big thing in fantasy. It’s a full price ride for fans, but hardly anything greater.