Peter Jackson made a successful return to Middle- Earth with last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This year he’s improved the pacing and upped the action with the better The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. This film was pretty much a thrill ride from beginning to end, only slowing down just enough for the audience to catch its breath. Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins is joined by his Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch as the fearsome dragon, Smaug. The scenes between the two are terrific, fraught with suspense and plenty of menace, as well as having a slight sense of humor when Bilbo tries to flatter the big beastie. They are just some of the memorable scenes in this superior sequel that had quite a few set pieces, some new additions, and the welcome return of a familiar face (and eye) from Lord of the Rings.
I won’t reveal a whole lot on the plot, as a) it will be familiar if you’ve read the book and b) there are some scenes which are better revealed for yourself. But I will touch on some things. The movie opens with a little prologue, giving us a scene covering the first meeting between Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Thorin (Richard Armitage). It made for a nice set up, and gave us yet another tie-in to Lord of the Rings, as the meeting took place in a town whose name you may remember from The Fellowship of the Ring in a certain tavern from the same film. The film then moved to events immediately following the first movie, with Azog (Manu Bennett) and his band of Orcs and Wargs in pursuit of our band of heroes. They end up at the house of shape-shifter Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), who gives them a bit of aid before they venture into Mirkwood. Various adventures follow until our band reaches their destination of Lonely Mountain. There they have a run-in with Smaug the dragon, and the movie ends with one terrific cliffhanger (not going to tell you where things end at).
The set pieces come at nice intervals, with a fantastically creepy battle with the spiders of Mirkwood. The end of the battle brings two new characters in the mix, one the familiar face from the Lord of the Rings, Legolas (returning star (Orlando Bloom) and newly created character for the film, elf Tauriel (Lost’s Evangeline Lilly). The barrel escape from the Wood Elves was made even more exciting from the book, adding in a pursuit by both the Orcs and Elves, highlighted by dwarf Bombur (Stephen Hunter) bowling over enemies while in his barrel, adding some thrills and laughs to the chase. There’s an Orc attack in Laketown, and the dwarves have a confrontation with the titular dragon inside the halls of Erebor.
And what a dragon he is. Benedict Cumberbatch, who was so good as the villainous Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness, lends his great voice to Smaug, imbuing him with suitable menace and intelligence. The special effects team also created an impressive looking creature, with a throat and chest that begin to glow whenever he’s about to shoot a wall of flame from his mouth. The sequence where the dragon is playing cat and mouse with the dwarves had its share of thrilling moments and narrow escapes. But Smaug wasn’t the only villain Cumberbatch lent his voice to. He also voiced the Necromancer in a trippy sequence where Gandalf has gone off to inspect some evil goings on in the dark fortress of Dol Guldur and ends up confronting the entity.
Gandalf’s trip to the dark fortress was just one of the additions to the plot from Tolkien’s book that Jackson placed in. I won’t go into every difference here, save to say they worked very well for the film, and in some cases, like the barrel escape down the river, provided some very thrilling moments. The addition of Tauriel to the cast seemed almost like they were trying to replicate the love story between the human Aragorn and the elf Arwen as she becomes a bit smitten with the dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner). But Tauriel is no mere love-struck damsel, as she wields a bow and a blade with an acrobatic agility that matches that of Legolas. Watching the pair leap from enemy to enemy, dispatching foes along the way, added a dynamic motion to the action scenes that looked natural and not just CGI stunts. It was always a thrill to watch, whether the pair was battling spiders in Mirkwood or Orcs. There were moments that Tauriel seemed to appear at the most convenient times to lend a hand, but Evangeline Lilly’s performance made her a very likeable and capable character. It should be interesting to see what part she plays in the third installment of the series.
All in all, this was yet another spectacular fantasy flick from Peter Jackson. The New Zealand locales again look beautiful and varied, and the set designers crafted some intricate and visually stunning stages, from the treasure filled halls of Erebor under Lonely Mountain to the spiral pathways in the Wood Elves kingdom to the village of Laketown. The 3D was used to great effect here, giving a nice depth to scenes and enabling the action scenes to be seen clearly without a lot of blurring. The scenes in the spider webs were nicely creepy, with the spiders providing a couple of “gotcha” moments. It added a beauty to the scene where Bilbo climbs to the top of a tree and is surrounded by blue butterflies, and the large bees in Beorn’s house just popped off the screen, looking convincingly like they were mere inches away. I would not say that seeing it in 2D would lessen the experience, just that if you make the 3D choice you will be in or a good time.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an improvement over the first movie, which was excellent in its own right. The cliffhanger definitely will leave you on your seat wishing that the third film would be releasing much sooner than it is. It’s another great tribute to Tolkien, and another winner for Jackson. One of the best movies of this year overall for me, and well worth the trip to your local theater.
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