I didn’t review the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, last year not because I didn’t like it (I did, very very much) but because the end of the year time crunch was too much. Like the last film, this one came out right during finals week at my college and I looked forward to it enormously, finally seeing it last night.
A lot of people have said that the first Hobbit was far too long with far too little action and while I can see their point, I don’t see how anyone could claim that. The Desolation of Smaug is a tight, lean film, getting right to the action and not letting up the whole time. It’s 2 1/2 hours, but it whizzes by like nothing.
The end of the last film involved the titular Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the rest of their company being pursued by a group of Orcs led by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett). After a flashback showing how Thorin and Gandalf met, that’s where we cut back to. The party manages to evade them and, realizing that they’re being pursued by a bear, are led by Gandalf to the home of Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a “skin-changer” who can turn into…the bear that’s been chasing them.
After that, the party heads into the dark forest of Mirkwood, with Gandalf leaving them in order to investigate rumors of a mysterious sorcerer known only as the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch). They find themselves ensnared by giant spiders and escape, only to be captured by the forces of the Elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace), led by his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reprising his role from the original trilogy) and captain of the guard Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). After some ridiculous, yet ridiculously awesome battle sequences involving barrels and a river, the group eventually makes their way to the Lonely Mountain, site of the Dwarven kingdom they’re hoping to reclaim, where they confront the ancient, terrible dragon Smaug (also Cumberbatch).
That may seem like a lot to deal with, but director Peter Jackson makes it all go down easy, proving once again that he is the absolute best at streamlining what is very dense material. The script, by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, shows this, giving equal attention to the small moments as much as the big ones and giving the viewers engaging material at all time, although this proves to be frustrating when a cutaway to smaller material right during the confrontations with Smaug proves to be kinda annoying.
The cast is stellar as ever, with Freeman, McKellen and Armitage all turning in great work. Bloom hasn’t really done a whole lot of note since LOTR and Pirates of the Caribbean, so it’s nice to see him back in his signature role, which he clearly relishes. As the new-for-the-movies Tauriel, Lilly had a lot to prove, and she pulls it off, proving that not only can new characters to an adaptation be good, they can also be revolutionary.
But the scene-stealer here is Cumberbatch, particularly as Smaug. It’s somewhat bizarre that no one other than Jackson and his team at Weta Workshop can make motion capture work, but this proves it once again. Cumberbatch has had a breakout year and this is the icing on the cake. He owns every second he’s on screen, and he will most definitely win awards for his bringing the most terrifying dragon in cinema to life. No matter how much of Smaug’s body you see on screen, he looks huge and endless and he and the folks at Weta Workshop will be racking up praise and accolades for quite some time.
Bottom line: this is not only a wonderful fantasy movie, but a wonderful movie, easily one of the year’s best films. Check it out (after you catch the first film). You won’t be disappointed.