The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Though still brimming with some narrative bloat, the second Hobbit feature is overall a considerable improvement on its meandering, tonally scattered predecessor. Less shapeless, though not free of venturing down uninteresting tangents (Hi, Legolas), it feels much more confident and moves with a greater sense of urgency.
It is a film of contradictions, though, in that many of its strengths are directly linked to its downsides. The improved pace and spectacle are thrilling, and the players and politics of new location Laketown intrigue, but they often overwhelm certain aspects that are meant to be the constants upon which this all hangs. The title character does get a lot more focus than he did in part one, though he’s barely present in the film’s middle third. Its performances feel more lived-in, but not enough of its recurring players have actual characterisation, and what pleasing parts there are on that front sometimes get lost in the shuffle to get to the next action set-piece.
The strength of those scenes goes some way to making up for that, at least. An escape sequence mid-film involving a river, barrels, elves and orcs has the kinetic energy and similarly fluid visual style of the stellar motorcycle chase in Spielberg’s Tintin film, which Jackson also had a hand in. The parts with Smaug the dragon (frighteningly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), meanwhile, are some of the most riveting material of any mega-budget film this year.
Two films in, it’s clear that the problematic issues of this prequel trilogy will be a permanent fixture until the end, but the entertainment factor and better sense of adventure in The Desolation of Smaug brings hope that the final instalment, There and Back Again, will offer material to make one want to come back to this full set of films upon their completion.