MILD SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW: BE WARNED.
The biggest complaint that The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey received was that the beginning was too long. The follow up, The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug improves on that too much. Not only does it thrust you into the middle of the action (after a brief flashback), it also doesn't have an ending.
Let's back up.
The Desolation of Smaug takes place immeadiately after the events of the previous film. It starts with a flashback to a year earlier when Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) encounters the wandering Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to inform him that there is a price on his head. Some dark force does not want Thorin to become "King Under The Mountain." One of the best things that these Hobbit movies are doing in terms of plot is to tie Thorin's venture in with the larger tapestry of Middle-Earth. Most of this is right from Tolkien's Appendecies, and they make an important addition to the story.
In the original book, the focus is entirely on the great treasure that the company hopes to claim from the dragon. While that is sufficient motivation for our heroes, it makes their motives more selfish than selfless. But by making the story about reclaiming a homeland and uniting against evil, without corrupting the original idea, Thorin's journey less about greed and more about reclaiming a lost home.
The main action begins as Thorin's company are still being pursued by Azog the Defiler. Along the way, they encounter the shape-changing Beorn (Mikael Persbrant). After this, they travel through the dangers of Mirkwood where they encounter all manner of dangers. This was one of my favorite parts of the film and it captured this section of the book beautifully. Afterwards they are accosted by the Woodland Elves, led by the haughty King Thranduil (Lee Pace), father of Fellowship member Legolas (Orlando Bloom). Also, we encounter a character invented for the movie, the she-elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lily ).
After a daring barrel escape (on of the silliest, but most fun sequences in the movie), they encounter Bard of Laketown (Luke Evans), who is the only honest resistance against a corrupt Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) and his toady Alfrid (Ryan Gage). From there it is on to the Lonely Mountain to the inevitable confrontation with the dragon Smaug.
I apologize for the lengthy exposition, but this film covers so much story in the time that it has. And it is ironic that a story so long should not have an ending. Unlike the other Middle-Earth movies, there was a sense of character development, completion of story arcs, and at least some closer before the end. This film, however, stops at the height of action with so much left unresolved. I think this is a structural problem of turning a 2-Part series into a trilogy. There was no natural place to end the story and leave enough material for the 3rd movie.
Visually, I have nothing but good things to say about this film. I cannot emphasize enough - SEE THIS IN 48-FRAMES-PER-SECOND. I have seen it both in normal and high frame rate and the difference is mind-blowing. As I noted about the CGI characters in the last Hobbit movie, they felt much more tangible and real in 48-frames than in 24-frames. This is even more important because the dragon Smaug is all CG. In regular rate he look good. In 48-frames he was the best movie dragon I have seen.
Speaking of Smaug, the movie does an excellent job of not just making him an obstacle, but a force of nature. His sheer grandeur is terrifying. Benedict Cumberbatch does a fantastic job as the voice of the dragon, making him cruel and arrogant and dripping with venom. He plays with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) like a cat playing with his prey.
The last film introduced, arguably, too many characters at once. The only dwarves who stood out to me were Thorin, Balin (Ken Stott), Kili (Aidan Turner), and Bofur (James Nesbitt). This movie gives few more character moments to characters like Fili (Dean O'Gorman), who is next in line for the throne, Dori (Mark Hadlow) who acts as a medic, Gloin (Peter Hambleton) the father of Gimli and the violent Dwalin (Graham McTavish). Balin made the biggest impression on me, as he did in the book. He is the voice of wisdom and kindness and Ken Stott does an excellent job of giving the flair of a wise, old Scot.
Lily does a very good job as Tauriel and her chemistry with Turner's Kili is a welcome addition to the story. Also Evan's Bard is both kind and cunning, very reminiscent of Aragorn. And it was fascinating to watch Bloom play a much younger, more arrogant Legolas than when we saw him last.
However not every addition is good. Pace's Thanduil chews the scenery like he's one of the Volturi from Twilight. I know that we are not meant to like him, but I found his pouting distracting. Also the Master and Alfrid are there to act as comic relief. But like the Goblin King from the last film, they were not only unfunny, but they curbed away from the believability and realism Jackson has worked so hard to establish for Middle Earth.
If you've noticed, I haven't mentioned much of Bilbo. That is because he is in much less of this movie than the last. He is still in most scenes, but after Mirkwood he slips into the background until the 3rd act. This is a shame, because Freeman's Bilbo is wonderfully layered and rich. I always liked Freeman, but this series is showing his real range as an actor. Not only does he have wonderful comedic timing, but he can show great change in character with the smallest action. He does a great job of showing how the One Ring affects him and how appalled he is by its effect. I truly hope they bring him more into prominence for the final film.
While this story adds an element of silliness and humor to it that is more appropriate than in The Lord of the Rings, The Desolation of Smaug sets up some truly harrowing events in the final film. If you want to see a visual spectacle and lose yourself in Middle Earth for 3 hours, then see this film.
Just prepare yourself for the frustration of watching an incomplete story.
4 out of 5 stars.