Coming just a year after last year's indifferently received but hugely successful return to the Shire, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," comes the follow-up, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." Using bits from J.R.R. Tolkien's original novel, plus miscellaneous odds and ends from both Tolkien and the earlier "Lord of the Rings" movies, it continues the adventures of Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his band of dwarves, as they make their way to a forbidden land to stop a seemingly unstoppable evil.
Directed by Peter Jackson, who has overseen every other installment in this sprawling, Middle-earth saga, it stretches the original text like taffy but never to the breaking point. This is still firmly planted in Middle-earth-ian lore, full of fantastical creatures great and small.
The question, of course, is -- does anyone care? Or are we suffering from the as-yet-undiagnosed "Lord of the Rings" fatigue? The first installment certainly sapped the energy from many filmgoers who were, once upon a time, rooting for any hobbit, dwarf, or elf. Is this an improvement on a somewhat belabored franchise and a shot in the arm for the series, or a dreary case of the more-of-the-sames? Read on to find out!
1. It Starts Before 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'
The opening moments of "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" are unexpectedly awesome and set before the events of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." In this richly atmospheric sequence, Gandalf (Ian McKellan) visits Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and proposes he go on the quest that has now taken up two very long movies. It's almost like the beginning of an episode of "Lost" or something and opens up the movie to a realm of creative possibilities that Jackson and his fellow filmmakers never really engage with. Still, it's a great way to kick off the movie and explains something that probably should have been revealed in the first movie.
2. It's Way, Way Better Than 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'
There has been a fair amount of outrage already spilled on the Internet about how Bilbo has been reduced to a secondary character and how the action sequences go on for far too long. But honestly, I didn't have a problem with either aspect of the movie. Unlike the first "Hobbit," which spent an undue amount of time trying to develop characters that we never would really care about, this one is more interested in the chase. That kind of propulsive forward-moving narrative is infectious and, while, as a colleague of mine said coming out of the screening, "Peter Jackson doesn't have the restraint to make a heist movie," at least he's come up with a pretty good chase movie. The characters are more fully defined, mostly by action instead of ponderous sequences of washing dishes and whatever the hell else they did the first time, and the set pieces bristle with wild imagination. This is a big-time upgrade. Don't listen to the trolls (in Middle-earth or on the Internet).
3. Peter Jackson Is BACK
What is also incredibly striking about this new "Hobbit" is how old-school Peter Jackson-y it is; there's a terrifying bear monster and ghostly stuff and giant spiders. For a whole swath of the movie, Gandalf is hanging out in the ruins of what can only be described as a haunted, monster-infested castle. Some of this is truly scary, and brings to mind the work of a director who had previously made "Dead Alive" and "The Frighteners." It's nice to see that the horror-loving ways of that young director haven't gotten lost amongst all the big-budget, heavily computer-assisted nonsense.
4. The Barrel Ride Will Blow Your Mind
There is one sequence in "The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug" that even the most jaded film viewer will find utterly spellbinding. It's a sequence after Bilbo & co. have been taken captive by the elves and they have found a way to escape (possibly with the help of a certain magical ring), by riding down a river in barrels. Of course, they don't count on the dark orc forces and the pissed-off elves to convene on the barrels, leading to a crazy rollercoaster ride of a sequence that had some members in our audience howling with laughter and delight. To describe it in any more detail would be to lessen the fun; as it stands, it's one of the greatest action set pieces of the year.
5. You Get To See Smaug!
At the end of the first movie, Smaug (voiced and performed by Benedict Cumberbatch) was merely teased, with a huge reptilian eye snapping open right before the credits rolled. In this film, we actually get to see Smaug in all of his villainous glory, and while his design may lack the creativity that one-time director Guillermo del Toro would have brought to the dragon; he's still a pretty wonderful creature. The best is when Smaug and Bilbo engage in a kind of philosophical debate as Bilbo is running for his life. It's reminiscent of the "Riddles in the Dark" sequence from the first movie and plays like gangbusters.
6. Familiar Faces Make a Return
Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the archer elf extraordinaire, is back this time around, with a reference to his future BFF Gimli. While Cate Blanchett was supposed to show up as an elf queen, she seemingly didn't make the final cut. Also, keep an eye out in that first scene for a Hitchcock-like cameo from Jackson (he's chowing down on a carrot).
7. Stephen Fry Is in It
Who knew? I did not. He plays the duplicitous leader of a water kingdom that has faced the desolation of Smaug before (and perhaps will again...) He's got bad teeth and a phony-looking wig, but he chews up the scenery with reckless aplomb and could make for an even greater foil in the third film.
8. It's Somewhat Shorter Than "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
It's less than three hours! Woo! That means you'll have some of your day/night left after you see it! Use that time wisely, wrapping Christmas presents or making gifs from this week's episode of "American Horror Story: Coven." Every moment is a gift.
9. We're Still Not Sold on the Bear Guy
At the beginning of the movie, there's this weird guy who can transform into a giant, monstrous bear. This dude better pay off in the third movie because I have no idea why he was even there and what he added to the movie (besides an extra 15 minutes). Also, it gave me weird flashbacks to "Brave." Is there some mythological tradition of people turning into bears that I'm simply not aware of? Roar!
10. It Ends on a Cliffhanger
Just like "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" ends on a cliffhanger that makes you want to tear your hair out and punch the chubby guy sitting next to you square in the mouth. Unlike the end of the first film, which was met with a collective shrug and not much interest in whether or not Jackson ever returns to the franchise, I would have watched next Christmas's third "Hobbit" entry directly following this one. It's that good.
"The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug" hits theaters Friday, December 13.