The first film got most of the prologue and first few chapters of the book out of the way, allowing the sequel to develop the journey. Subsequently there was no need to dwell on The Shire any longer. Instead we are dropped pretty much straight in to where the previous film left off, albeit with a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from the director himself and a short bit of back story of how Gandalf set Thorin off on the quest to the Lonely Mountain in the first place.
Then we are in, jumping to where the eagles dropped the intrepid adventurers and the story picks back up again. The gang are still being pursued by the Pale Orc, Azog and his minions. After Azog is summoned away, he instructs his son, Bolg to take over the tracking and forces the Dwarves to take refuge in a nearby cottage. When they awaken to continue their journey, they come up against their first obstacle, an impossibly large forest to contend with. Gandalf is then called upon by fellow wizard, Radagast, leaving the party without the previous protection and leadership that he offered them. Predictably when attempting to cross through the forest, the Dwarves then manage to lose their way and here is where the first huge set piece comes into effect. This was something the last film also provided in abundance.
Here Bilbo is once again is in his element, giving Martin Freeman a brief chance to shine and rescue the trapped gang, reminding people of his undoubted talents at displaying Bilbo’s often ambivalent feelings towards what he is being tasked with. He slowly develops Bilbo from the innocent, almost meek Hobbit at the beginning, to the more assertive and courageous Hobbit that eventually has to face-off against the Dragon, Smaug. He frees his friends with the power of invisibility from the Ring, something that becomes more frequent throughout the film.
Unfortunately Bilbo isn’t always around to bail them out though and with the Dwarves seemingly not able to make it through any part of Middle-Earth without being captured, they require additional assistance. This is where Elves, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Evangeline Lilly’s new character Tauriel step in. They turn up recurrently to lend a hand at the last possible second to help the pose out when they are in trouble whether it is inadvertently or by design. Sadly this does get a bit repetitive, but they contribute to most of the outstanding elements of the film.
These two really steal the show and apart from a bizarre, fairly contrived love-triangle with Aidan Turner’s dwarf, Kili, they are the best things in the movie. Initially they retrieve the Dwarves from their captors and then imprison them in their own kingdom. When Thorin refuses to bargain with their leader Thranduil, Bilbo leads a daring escape in some wine barrels down a torrential river with the two Elves in hot pursuit. What then follows is one of the finest sequences you will ever see as Jackson once again shows his incredible knack for creating brilliant and ridiculous chase scenes.
It quite simply has to be seen to be believed and harks back to Jackson’s earlier work in similar scenes from King Kong and the escape from the goblin cave in the first Hobbit film. This does top both of those however as the Dwarves shoot down river in their barrels, dodging arrows and axes from the Orc’s whilst at the same time avoiding Legolas and Tauriel who are dueling with and taking down the Orc’s simultaneously.
Unfortunately the film fails to reach these heights again as the increasingly prominent Lord of The Rings links come into effect in the second act as Gandalf goes to visit the Necromancer in Dol Guldur. This does slow the film down dramatically but never enough to be of detriment. As mentioned in my previous Hobbit review, the books author J.R.R.Tolkein did go back and re-write various parts of The Hobbit after he had completed the LOTR’s books to make it more of a prequel to The Fellowship of the Ring. Here Jackson embellishes these elements and also uses some the Middle-Earth appendices that Tolkien wrote at the back of The Return of King, along with some original story of his own, to create a much more filled-out world as the evil Sauron begins to draw power.
New to the cast this time round is Luke Evans as Bard the boatman who takes the Dwarves to the lake town, Esgaroth, at the bottom of The Lonely Mountain and the rather peculiar casting of Stephen Fry as the town’s master. Benedict Cumberbatch also lends his menacing tones as the antagonist Smaug and his sequence with Bilbo is reminiscent of the previous films finale with the Hobbit and Golum, although on a much vaster scale. However for such a clever and almost omnipotent being, the Dragon is outsmarted a lot by the Dwarves and the film ends quite abruptly with a slight anti-climax as it foreshadows and sets up the final movie.
Ultimately, The Desolation Of Smaug does just exceed the original. With superior set pieces and the characters established, Jackson is able to get on with the story-telling part much more. Also, with the new environments and previously unseen areas of Middle-Earth for Jackson to play with, there is a lot of scope for more original cinematography with the film generally avoiding previous LOTR’s destinations. Now though, we have an agonising wait until next December to see what Jackson et.al have in store for us. If it yet again manages to top its predecessor then it will be something very special to behold.