Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins
Ian McKellen as Gandalf
Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield
Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel
Orlando Bloom as Legolas
Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman
Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug / The Necromancer
Manu Bennett as Azog
Lee Pace as Thranduil
Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown
Billy Connolly as Dain Ironfoot
Aidan Turner as Kili
Graham McTavish as Dwalin
Dean O'Gorman as Fili
Stephen Fry as Master of Laketown
James Nesbitt as Bofur
Ken Stott as Balin
Peter Hambleton as Gloin
Mikael Persbrandt as Beorn
Adam Brown as Ori
William Kircher as Bifur
Jed Brophy as Nori
Conan Stevens as Bolg
Stephen Hunter as Bombur
Mark Hadlow as Dori
John Callen as Oin
Ryan Gage as Alfrid
Directed by Peter Jackson
After getting the first installment of his triumphant return to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien bogged down in the high-frame rate fiasco, director Peter Jackson dusts himself off and reminds us why we loved the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy with a middle installment offering new characters, new locales and situations, yet much of the same fun and excitement that made the original trilogy so beloved.
After a quick preamble showing the first meeting between Ian McKellen's Gandalf and the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) in which they decide to team on a quest to retrieve the Arkenstone from the former Dwarf kingdom within the Lonely Mountain, we're back on the road with Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf and the dwarves. Hot on their heels is the beastly Orc Azog, who has to stop the dwarves from regaining their source of power. The group soon arrives at the gnarled black forest outside the Elvish city of Mirkwood and they proceed without Gandalf and encounter a large group of similar giant spiders to the one faced by Frodo. When they're saved by a group of Wood-elves, they're taken prisoner, but as Bilbo helps them escape again, the band of Orcs is still on their trail, leading to an amazing water-bound escape sequence that's one of those unforgettable Peter Jackson set pieces that will have audiences applauding. Eventually the group arrives at Laketown with the unwilling but paid help of the human Bard—Luke Evans, looking a lot like Orlando Bloom in his "Pirates of the Caribbean" role—as they get closer to Lonely Mountain and their confrontation with the dragon that stands between them and the Arkenstone.
"An Unexpected Journey," the first chapter of this adaptation already was veering away from Tolkien's text, but it also had other problems, one of them rectified simply by being more familiar with the representation of the characters, particularly Freeman's Baggins and Armitage as Thorin, both who seem to have stepped up their game this movie.
Even so, the best new addition to the film and an original character not taken from any of Tolkien's work, is Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel, a bad ass fighting elf who shows up alongside Orlando Bloom's fan favorite Legolas. She immediately grabs your attention while Lilly brings true emotion to the role as a romance brews between her and the jailed dwarf Kili, played by Aidan Turner, one of the few dwarfs with fairly normal features and hair.
Right there are three reasons why "Smaug" is more on par with the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Having a female hero fighting alongside men may be cowtowing to the series' female fanbase, but having a central female character makes the world feel more real while the romance helps give viewers something emotional to latch onto than the quest for a trinket. More importantly, the dwarves are given far more personality and identity, setting them apart from each other rather than just being a group of little men with funny names and facial hair.
Along the journey, they frequently go off on tangential side-missions, much like the best video games, allowing us to have new visual experiences unlike anything we saw in "Lord of the Rings." This includes Gandalf sneaking into the Orc kingdom along with fellow wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), which offers some of the real tension that made "Lord of the Rings" such an exciting ride. It's actually one of the more endearing aspects of "Smaug" that Jackson's roots as a horror director are on full display with tension building up to a number of jump scares as well as the use of practical make-up to show decapitations and a particularly nasty scarred elf.
At first, the use of CG seems somewhat obtrusive with Jackson overdoing the number of birds and bees and butterflies thrown into every shot, that on top of Azog and his lieutenant Bolg seemingly having CG facial enhancements that detract from their menace. But those distractions don't last for long before you're fully absorbed into the world and by the time you get to see Smaug in all his glory, it's another jaw-breaking achievement in terms of visual FX. Smaug and his cavern are so fully realized, as Jackson's team create an absolute behemoth of a creature, completed by the booming baritone vocal prowess of Benedict Cumberbatch, as he slithers through mountains of gold coins with so many ways to kill any intruders. The first encounter between Bilbo and Smaug is classic, on par with the Bilbo/Gollum moment in the first movie or any of the Gollum moments from the "Lord of the Rings" films. The fast-paced last act that follows more than makes up for any slow moments the film may have suffered over the two hours leading up to it.
Franchise movies based on books sometimes aren't believable because no matter how much danger is thrown the way of the protagonists, you never get the feeling any of them can die—they'll figure a way out or someone will come along to save them. In this case, Jackson creates so much tension you honestly think that he'll go "off book" and that some of the key players might not survive what they're forced to overcome during the journey.
To some, "The Desolation of Smaug" will certainly be seen merely as a "linking movie" since it does pick up in the middle of the story and ends on a cliffhanger, forcing us to wait a year for the conclusion, but like the recent "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," it also leaves you breathlessly wanting to see more, knowing that the biggest battle and some of Jackson's most fantastic set pieces are still yet to come.
The Bottom Line:
Captivating and exciting from start to finish, "Desolation of Smaug" is a welcome return to form for Jackson that should help remind everyone why they loved "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy so much.