After a slightly mixed response to the first instalment, Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-earth for the second part of his Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug (2013), should hopefully set fans and critics’ qualms aside, offering a rollicking adventure tale full of the Kiwi director’s signature attention to detail. We open before the events of An Unexpected Journey, with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) meeting dwarven warrior Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) at Bree’s Prancing Pony inn. It’s Thorin, not Bilbo (Martin Freeman) who’s the focus this time round, although the courageous little hobbit certainly plays his part.
The rest of The Desolation of Smaug sees us back with Bilbo and Thorin’s band of bumbling yet brave dwarves as they continue on their quest to reclaim the lost kingdom of Erebor, now under the guard of the titular dragon. When it was announced that author J.R.R. Tolkien’s 200-page children’s book The Hobbit was going to be divided into three feature films, even those who had never read the beloved fantasy classic questioned the reasoning. Fortunately, this second chapter is laced with so much old-fashioned fun and brio that such concerns are quickly laid to rest. Unlike his sluggish opener, Jackson has triumphantly reverted to more traditional storytelling techniques focusing on pace and action for this technically spellbinding sequel.
The many subplots of An Unexpected Journey have been streamlined, as though the anxiety that once plagued Jackson to fit his Hobbit adaptation into his Lord of the Rings trilogy has been partially appeased. Here, Jackson treats fantasy not with with melodrama nor brooding doom, but with an entertaining level of frivolity that still delivers the dramatic goods. A balding Stephen Fry channels Black Adder’s Lord Melchett as the Machiavellian Master of Laketown, Lee Pace amuses with his arch rendition of eleven-king Thranduil, and Luke Evans steps into Boromir’s shoes as the doubting and dissenting Bard. Yet it’s Benedict Cumberbatch who steals the show with his booming baritone as the mighty fire-breathing worm, Smaug.
Much like Bilbo’s previous encounter with Gollum, Freeman shines in a battle of wits against the verbose Smaug in one of the most arresting, visually astounding moments in this undeniably lengthy, but never dull blockbuster. Equally entertaining is The Hobbit’s famous barrel escape, with Bilbo and his dwarven cohort splashing down a river pursued by a band of marauding orcs as well as their former captors, the elves of Mirkwood, including Orlando Bloom (back as the bow-wielding Legolas) and elf-maiden Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly. Earlier on, we’re also treated to a brief visit to the woodland home of ursine skin-changer Beorn (a heavily made-up Mikael Persbrandt). All these moments and more are wrapped together with childlike wonder by Jackson, who’s reminded himself that a sense of fun is no bad thing in a fantasy epic of this ilk.
Whilst Jackson has certainly made vast improvements on his Unexpected Journey, this middle segment does feel like it’s winding up to something far greater. Splitting the story into three (latterly four) narrative strands feels a little unnecessary, in particular Gandalf’s abandonment of his companions in order to do battle with the mysterious “necromancer” at the crumbling fortress of Dol Guldur. There’s also a sense that Jackson is perhaps purposefully treading over familiar ground, whereby instead of clumsy narrative devices he uses character situations to link the past with future events. Such reservations are for the most part, however, buried deep within The Desolation of Smaug’s glittering bounty of frivolity and spectacle.