Peter Jackson's epic, three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" continues with "The Desolation of Smaug," and though it still suffers from some of the same issues that plagued the first installment -- specifically feeling like an hour of story crammed into three hours of film -- this chapter feels more confident, with a renewed sense of purpose in its storytelling. Jackson keeps things relatively light compared to the original "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and the sense of fun contained in the film's elaborately extended action sequences goes a ways in excusing (some) of the padding, making this a journey that's worth taking.
"The Desolation of Smaug" continues the adventures of hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who in the last film was recruited to assist a band of dwarves in their quest to battle Smaug the dragon (voiced menacingly by Benedict Cumberbatch) for control of their homeland of Erebor (along with the mountains of treasure it contains). Having evaded the clutches of a small army of orcs at the end of the first film, the gang continues its long trek, getting themselves into a number of sticky situations along the way before facing off against the enormous dragon deep inside the caverns of Lonely Mountain.
"The Hobbit" doesn't have the end-of-the-world stakes of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy; it's ultimately a children's adventure tale, and Jackson's films reflect that. He forsakes some of the gravitas of the original trilogy in favor of a series of inventive, if over-the-top, action set pieces that give the "Hobbit" chapters an episodic feel. Admittedly, these lengthy sequences -- a whitewater barrel escape from elves; a spider attack that horrified this arachnophobe -- occasionally veer into cartoonish territory, but that doesn't feel out of place in the world the filmmaker has created.
The section of the film where the group takes refuge, with the help of key new acquaintance Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans, quite good in one of the film's more complex roles), in Laketown drags somewhat, though I fully admit that may have been the result of my foolhardy decision to attend a midnight screening -- the true epic struggle happening at that point was the one between me and my rapidly closing eyelids.
Martin Freeman continues to do great work as Bilbo, incorporating some darker edges into his performance, as the mild-mannered hobbit is seduced more and more by a certain golden trinket he picked up in the first film. But with all the time devoted to the film's dozens of characters, there are sections of the film where Bilbo sometimes feels like a secondary role in what is ostensibly his story. Still, he's given enough heroic moments that he remains in the spotlight.
Rather inexplicably, Jackson has chosen to add characters to an already overloaded film, finding a place for elf warrior Legolas (played, as he was in the original trilogy, by Orlando Bloom) to become a major focus, though in this film he seems like less a character than an unstoppable orc-killing machine. Jackson even creates a new character, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, "Lost"), head of the elven guard and love interest for Kili (the hot dwarf; don't pretend like you don't know which one I'm talking about). I've never been bothered by Jackson's desire to add a female presence to the films, especially when they're as ass-kicking as this one.
But let's face it, everyone is really here for the dragon. And in this regard the film does not disappoint. Though advertising for the film has gone to great lengths to avoid giving audiences a good look at Smaug, his appearance in the movie exceeds expectations: he's an impressive technical achievement, and a wholly convincing character in his own right. His scenes are among the film's best, continuing the first film's trend of getting the most drama out of the bits where Bilbo is alone, facing off against a creature in the darkness.
Though "The Desolation of Smaug" is still not as dramatically satisfying as "The Lord of the Rings," those craving a fun, often gripping, adventure film should leave the theater happy (you'll definitely get your money's worth). However, since this trilogy is literally one story split up into three separate films, it's difficult to judge the ultimate success of Jackson's adaptation until the entire work can be seen as a whole.