A significant improvement when compared to its predecessor, “The Desolation of Smaug” takes the audience on an even more spectacular dramatic adventure into Middle-earth.
Picking up from where “An Unexpected Journey” left off, Bilbo Baggins and the Company of Dwarves must navigate the dangers of Mirkwood and Lake-town without Gandalf’s aid, relying on advice from a powerful stranger.
As they make their way to the Lonely Mountain, where a secret passage leads to the vast treasure guarded by the dragon Smaug, Bilbo’s true purpose in this quest becomes ever more apparent.
Meanwhile, Gandalf investigates the ruins of Dol Guldur, intent on expelling the mysterious entity lurking there.
Those who have waited patiently for Peter Jackson to get things moving since “An Unexpected Journey” will be happy to hear “The Desolation of Smaug” does just that.
His choice to take “The Hobbit” slow and steady has paid off, and here is where it gets a move on.
Once again, the director’s flair for top-notch visuals succeeds in wowing the audience, thanks to the efforts of Weta Workshop.
The most obvious accomplishment is Smaug the dragon, who just might be the most convincing computer-generated character since the recent depiction of Kong in 2005’s “King Kong.”
But let’s not forget how each of the Middle-earth realms we visit possesses their own unique identity: Mirkwood’s bizarre mystery, Lake-town’s cold squalor, Dol Guldur’s deathly menace, and the Lonely Mountain’s colossal treasure.
No location is without its mark, and the men and women who worked hard to achieve this have my appreciation.
Another notable improvement is the action, which, in contrast to the first episode’s acceptable display, possesses an energetic urgency in the second.
I enjoyed the increased fluidity in the set pieces, particularly the Mirkwood “white water barreling” sequence in which Bilbo and company are being pursued by both Wood-elves and Orcs, even as the two races fight each other.
But it is the confrontation with Smaug inside the Lonely Mountain that people will want to witness and, from what I’ve seen, will get a big bang for their buck.
The more I think about “The Desolation of Smaug,” the more I realize how much more of a connection I felt with the characters here. Whether it had to do with the cast members or how they approached the story, I found myself caring about the hardships they faced.
Martin Freeman imbues Bilbo Baggins with a greater sense of courage and self-sacrifice, and Ian McKellen never fails to impress whenever he transforms into the wise and powerful Gandalf the Grey.
Richard Armitage exceeds expectations as the serious-minded Thorin Oakenshield, whose grief and anger continue to challenge his resolve. Manu Bennett is fiercer and angrier this time around as Azog, the pale-skinned Orc chieftain.
Lee Pace exudes an eloquent supremacy that suits Thranduil the Elvenking well.
Orlando Bloom, who reprises his iconic role of Legolas, is still as charismatic as ever with a bow and arrow. Evangeline Lilly instills a vigilant determination in Tauriel, and delivers a strong performance whose combat skills and way with words match those of her male counterpart.
Luke Evans is grim and insightful in his portrayal of Bard the Bowman, and Stephen Fry has this greedy personality about him that makes his Master of Lake-town a delight to watch.
Mikael Persbrandt, despite appearing only at the film’s beginning, brings a memorable quality to Beorn, who can transform into a bear.
The undisputed highlight is, without a doubt, Benedict Cumberbatch, who does a fine job portraying Smaug through voice and motion capture.
I had a blast watching him breathe life into this fearsome creature, whose reptilian appearance goes hand in hand with his wicked intellect; talk about an unstoppable force of nature!
I’ve waited a long time to see a dragon that feels real on the big screen, and witnessing Cumberbatch’s Smaug just made my wish come true.
Anyone who felt that “An Unexpected Journey” stumbled will be relieved to see “The Desolation of Smaug” is where the story takes off, and gives us good reason to return to Middle-earth.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.
Running time: 2 hours and 41 minutes
Playing: In general release