Though it doesn't justify exploding a 300-page children's novel into a trilogy of nearly three-hour movies, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug goes a long way towards course correcting the series after the clunky, plodding start of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Now that the set-up dispensed with and the story is fully underway, there's much more emphasis on the characters and themes (no mean feat considering its party of 14 questing heroes and the half-dozen or so newcomers introduced here). The pacing is better, too, but there's still an air of self-indulgence, though, and some of the added material still feels extraneous.
The movie opens in media res, with Gandalf (Ian McKellan, still nailing it), Bilbo (Martin Freeman), and the large contingent of dwarfs led by would-be Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on the run from marauding orcs while on their quest to reclaim the dwarfs kingdom under the Lonely Mountain from the fire-breathing dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Their journeys take them through the home "skinchanger" Beorn (a suitably imposing Mikael Persbrandt), the spider-infested Mirkwood forest, and the Dickens-by-way-of-D&D settlement of Lake-Town.
Each stop introduces new characters who seem poised to become pivotal to the story (though apparently not until next year's concluding installment). Persbrandt plays the shape-shifting Beorn as an intense, brooding, and enigmatic figure in a way that leaves us wanting more. Lee Pace gets considerably more screen time as haughty, isolationist King Thranduil of the Wood-Elves as does Orlando Bloom, reprising his role as Legolas.
Though described as being Thranduil's son in The Lord of the Rings, the character never appeared in The Hobbit; neither did fiercely independent captain-of-the-guard Tauriel (Lost‘s Evangeline Lilly), for whom Legolas carries an unrequited torch. Tauriel was added by director Peter Jackson and screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens in order make up for author J.R.R. Tolkien's lack of female characters in the story, as well as Hollywood's prerequisite for a romantic subplot that ultimately just bogs down the story. Tauriel is a vibrant and engaging character, though, and her infatuation with heart-throb dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) sets up one of the odder cinematic love triangles.
Lake-Town introduces the heroic but down-on-his-luck ferryman and budding revolutionary Bard (Luke Evans), who is one step away from leading an open revolt against the village's paranoid, self-obsessed Master (Stephen Fry) and his toadying assistant Alfrid (Ryan Gage). Bard's story has been expanded from the source material, and in a way that works well without going overboard.
And then there's dragon. It left a lot of viewers annoyed last year when An Unexpected Journey cut to credits after offering little more than a hint of Smaug. This time around, we get the whole beast in all of its resplendent, terrible glory, and Cumberbatch (who co-stars with Freeman on the Sherlock series) dives into the role with the preening gravitas necessary for the megalomaniacal beast.
The Desolation of Smaug isn't without its flaws, however. At 160 minutes, isn't quite as bloated as its predecessor, but there is still plenty of story fat that could have been trimmed, or at least restructured. It feels disjointed compared to the LOTR movies, and doesn't cut cleanly between the dwarfs journey and the side-plot that has Gandalf on the trail of mysterious Necromancer and a war looming on the horizon.
Worse, some of the action sequences seem unnecessarily bloated and aimless, namely the dwarfs' river-barrel escape and the nearly 30-minute confrontation between the dwarfs and Smaug in the bowels of the Lonely Mountain, the latter of which is exacerbated by a weirdly timed cliffhanger ending. Up to that point it mostly works as a stand-alone film. Still, we'll have to wait one more year before we'll know if the entire journey was worth taking.