We return to Middle Earth as Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the company of dwarves face the Mirkwood and journey onwards to the Lonely Mountain. Their quest remains the same; to reclaim the dwarf homeland and defeat Smaug, the usurping dragon.
The choice to make The Hobbit into three films is one that still rankles with a lot of fans, especially when the first instalment in the franchise came up lacking. The good news is that some of the issues with the first film have been resolved. The bad news is that it is still a series of three parts.
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Aidan Turner, Richard Armitage and the cast of the first film return and, as always, it is a pleasure to watch their interactions with the beautiful world of Middle Earth, and the characters around them. Newcomers include Evangeline Lilly as elf Tauriel, Luke Evans as Bard and Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown, and it is with these newcomers that much of the story rests. Lilly obviously has a great time as Tauriel, and she certainly captures the balance between deadliness and beauty, Luke Evans plays a man who is conflicted but ultimately wise, and Stephen Fry ramps up the absurdity of the story as the egotistical and selfish Master of Laketown. These characters are the ones who move much of the story forward, and aid or thwart the company as they voyage through Middle Earth.
In terms of the minutiae of the story; Gandalf takes himself off from the rest of the company and joins forces with his old pal Radagast to find out more about the threat that is rising in Middle Earth, an elf and a dwarf fall in love and this, even though it feels a little shoehorned in at times, serves as tension and brings a little sweetness to the film. It is Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch – as Bilbo and Smaug – whose interactions make the film, however; the battle of wits and words takes up the final act of the film and the result is a joy to watch. Freeman is at his most gutsy, scared and adorable, and Cumberbatch’s Smaug is a malevolent delight. The rhythm of the scene is wonderful, and filled with danger and mystery; two things that the Middle Earth films are great at.
In terms of the high frame rate and 3D, both are still there, and one has more trouble than the other. The 3D is actually the least offensive technical gimmick of the film, and goes some way to adding depth to this CGI wonderland. The high frame rate issue has not been solved in the last year; meaning it still leaves the film feeling like a cheap soap opera at times, and the characters often have odd, disjointed movements. As well as this, some of the choices made in the editing room leave the film feeling more like a (beautifully realised) game, rather than a movie, so fast are some of the cuts between shots and scenes. That said, the CGI is truly beautiful, and Middle Earth feels both familiar and mysterious as the characters journey through it. The spiders of Mirkwood are genuinely terrifying and, some dodgy POV shots aside, the river chase sequence is well shot and gripping.
The trouble, as before, comes with the running time of the film. The first 90 minutes or so pass at a gallop, but thereafter the film feels as though it is dragging its heels and some bolder choices could have been made to benefit the pacing since the story of the film is really rather thin. Having said this, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a vast improvement on An Unexpected Journey, filled as it is with danger, mystery and some truly kick ass fight sequences.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a definite step up from the first film in the franchise; the pacing is much better although the story is as thin, and the introduction of new characters injects some much-needed freshness into the franchise. Freeman and McKellen, as always, are a joy to watch on screen, and Cumberbatch’s deliciously resonant voice is perfect for the evil dragon. The final instalment of the trilogy is sure to be the best, but The Desolation of Smaug is not that desolate after all.