Brief recap of An Unexpected Journey: The wizard Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) of the previous Lord of the Rings trilogy comes to recruit the Hobbit known as Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to help a group of Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on a quest to take back their mountain home Eleborn, which was conquered by the dragon Smaug many years back. It’s a dangerous undertaking as some races, most notably the Orcs led by Azog The Defiler (Manu Bennett) do not want them to succeed.
The Desolation of Smaug starts with a nighttime encounter in a seemingly happy town (featuring a brief cameo almost the instant the movie starts if you pay attention). Thorin sits in a tavern having a drink while noticing some of the men there are keying on him. Suddenly, Gandalf appears and tells him there might be a way to restore his kingdom of Dwarves, as well as the fact there’s a price on Thorin’s head.
We cut to 12 months later (just after the events of the first film) as the Dwarves seek to elude the Orcs. Gandalf mentions a place they might find shelter… with an interesting hitch. Still, this gives them time to contemplate their next move as they head to the Lonely Mountain. The team has to go through a foreboding forest of mystery (the first of many treacherous routes on this journey) before they get to the mountain though. Gandalf however breaks off from them to investigate another aspect of the coming crisis.
Along the way, we meet a formidable force of Elves, including a female warrior named Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and a face familiar to Lord of the Rings viewers, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who has a bit of a harder edge to his personality in this story. I guess he mellowed with age. There’s also a smuggler named Bard (Luke Evans) whose story proves to be more interesting as the tale progresses.
I’ve seen people say this film is better than An Unexpected Journey. I don’t totally agree on this, in that this series feels just like The Lord of the Rings as Peter Jackson has told the story. Film one introduces the characters and the situation the must face; film two is the thrilling adventure, and the third will likely be the climax much as Return of the King concluded the previous set. A lot more does happen visually in this movie as the action these guys go through doesn’t disappoint in the slightest and keeps folks engaged big time.
Beyond the sweeping cinematography of vast landscapes and forestry, one thing Jackson and his team excel at is fight scenes. They’re both grand and personal at the same time. You get the hack and slash styles of the Orcs and Dwarves, while the Elves show incredible speed and accuracy in their skillsets. The mix of these differences with varied camera and effects techniques creates some of the best battle sequences on film. I saw this screening in 3D without the 48fps frame rate so I can’t tell you how that version looked, but the one I saw had impeccably clear quality. This was damned handy during the wild river chase sequence, which has to be seen to be believed. Six Flags’s Thunderiver ride has nothing on this.
The action is most effective though because of the characters we’ve come to know, whose development is well paced among all the craziness. It’s interesting to see how these people are connected in both this trilogy and the previous one. It’s also good to see how the Dwarves’ crew makes it through these dangerous times, as well as the effects this journey has on Thorin who seemingly grows darker, driven and more haunted. Meanwhile, Bilbo continues to be a fun fish-out-of-water with the quick wit, able to solve just about any puzzle placed in front of him. You kind of feel proud of him and sorry for him as he helps the crew get through everything.
The biggest hurdle this team faces though is a magnificent feat for film fans as we finally meet the dragon whose presence has been whispered of through 1 and 2/3 movies. It is so incredible to see this creature created that it was really worth saving for discussion until the end. Between the lifelike texture and intricate movements displayed here, Smaug is truly the most incredible dragon ever realized on film. He is pure menace, accentuated by the vocal performance of Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness) with evil enunciation and dread, articulated excellently in the dragon’s movements. Watching Smaug and Bilbo’s interaction is rather amusing considering their respective actors team together on the BBC series Sherlock, so listening to Smaug torment Bilbo is a rather fun bit to take in. From a visual standpoint, this aspect called to mind the animated Hobbit movie done by Rankin Bass in the 80s as there were parts of this specific scene that seemed to jump right out of that movie.
As you might imagine, I had an excellent time watching this film and will likely return to the theater to do so again. I know of the changes Peter Jackson has made here that many fans of the novel are seemingly not happy with. Still, he recently explained these were inspired by certain elements left open by J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, and the changes have been entertaining so I’ll allow for them. I’ve not read the novel myself, nor have I seen the animated movie in many years. However, I’ve been quite captivated by the story presented in these two films and was annoyed when it indeed in Kill Bill fashion. I know I could easily take in the book or animation to get a resolution, but I don’t want one from those mediums just yet. Due to the incredible efforts thus far, I am instead very happy to anticipate this journey’s end when the third film is released.