It's difficult to deny that this second installment of what has now become THE HOBBIT trilogy exists as a more complete film than AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. Having dispensed with introducing dozens of new characters (and saying hello again to a few familiar ones), director Peter Jackson could make THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG into something that focuses more on solid action and even a bit of character building, both of which are good things. What is not so good is that there is still a great deal of fluff and filler in the mix; and some of what is great about SMAUG is unexpected and welcome. It's a mixed bag, but one that unreservedly works far better than what came before, and gives many signs of greater things to come.
Weirdly enough, much like THE TWO TOWERS, the second film in THE HOBBIT series features a tremendous amount of walking. The 13 dwarfs and their recruited hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continue their trek toward the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the dwarf kingdom of Erebor and place Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, still stubborn but less so) as the new dwarf king. The only thing standing in their way (that they know about) is a massive dragon named Smaug, who loves the treasure that sits inside the kingdom just as much as Thorin's grandfather did. Since hobbits are believed to be naturally sneak and clever, the mission is to send Bilbo into the treasure room, find the Arkenstone (the giant jewel that designates the holder as king), and get out of there without waking Smaug and getting burned to a cinder. Good luck with that.
But the dwarves, Bilbo and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) must overcome a great deal along the road the mountain, including roving bands of orcs (much like the last film), a forest filled with massive, hideous spiders, a race of elves that live in the woods and are a bit more hostile than the ones led by Elrond. In fact, these elves are led by the notorious Thranduil (Lee Pace), the very elf king who left the dwarves to die when Smaug attacked years earlier. His son is a familiar young elf called Legolas (Orlando Bloom), somewhat colder and more detached than he will become in THE LORD OF THE RINGS story, but no less repelled by dwarves.
The newly created character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is a welcome addition to the story as a warrior elf, with a slight crush on Legolas, and a strange attraction to the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). As much as it might seem silly to add a love story or two to The Hobbit story, the addition of Tauriel is actually more impressive for the sheer volume of action sequences she's a part of. The woman knows how to decapitate an orc's head with the best of them.
As happy as I was to see a female Robin Hood kick ass in the elven forest, I was equally displeased with nearly everything that occurs in Laketown, populated by a greedy, selfish leader Master (Stephen Fry) and his sniveling sidekick Alfrid (Ryan Gage), two of the worst written characters Peter Jackson has ever been a part of creating. I'm a huge admirer of Fry's work and existence, but there is nothing in the least bit interesting about the Master or anything having to do with the way he runs Laketown. If we've learned anything from the STAR WARS prequels, it should be that politics in fantasy/sci-fi film is deadly dull. And having the Master be a one-dimensional, slimy-looking dictator who hates and distrusts the poor (which most of his subjects are) adds nothing to the mix and slows everything down to a near halt.
But Laketown does offer us one glimmer of interesting hope in the form of Bard (Luke Evans), a citizen of the city who just happens to provide the dwarves with enough help and supplies to finish their journey to the mountain. Bard also happens to be something of the town's resident revolutionary, who never misses a chance to criticize and undermine the Master. He may also be the only hope of ridding the world of Smaug, which we won't know for sure until the third and final film, There and Back Again.
As I said before, action is the name of the game in THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. There are a good half-dozen incredible sequences in this film at least, including the finest involving the dwarves getting into giant wine barrels and getting dumped into a rapidly moving river being chased by orcs and elves alike. Then there is, of course, the unveiling of Smaug, the talking, fire-breathing dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who Bilbo awakens (spoiler alert!) and attempt to negotiate with before just flat out running away with fire on his tail. The way Bilbo and the dwarves maneuver with Smaug on their heels is pretty impressive, and they even come up with a way to neutralize him that's pretty clever (it doesn't exactly work, but it is no less clever for it).
Jackson and his co-writers have also dropped in a few fun little easter eggs for fans. Look for a familiar pub setting in the film's pre-credits sequence, as well as the name dropping of a well-known dwarf character, and perhaps most importantly, the return of a familiar evil in a great sequence involving Gandalf venturing away from the group to investigate terrible goings on in the seemingly abandoned palace at Dol Guldur. We get a little bit more Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and a preview of the skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a character whose importance will become clearer in the next film. Those wondering how the writers planned on interweaving supplemental material into THE HOBBIT films will get a better sense of that through this portion of the story. You may not like it, but I think it works nicely to fill in some gaps in several places.
The plain and simple fact is that there is simply so much more to like in THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, and with the Battle of the Five Armies still on deck (epic battles are a Jackson specialty), the excitement level for the next year will only increase. Any sign that THE HOBBIT films are getting closer in quality to THE LORD OF THE RINGS films makes me happy, and there are many such indications. The one thing that seems slightly odd is that Bilbo himself feels strangely absent from his own story until the end (although upon a second viewing, this seemed less true), but there's so much more to like here, and that's what counts. That being said, I can't say an extended addition of SMAUG is eagerly anticipated; this one doesn't need to be a minute longer.