Last year's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was, in direct refutation of its title, precisely what was to be expected in our return to Middle Earth. For all the (deserved) love given to the monumental achievement that was Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, people seem quick to forget that with each subsequent film the CGI quotient was upped considerably, with its finale The Return of the King being particularly drenched in computer-generated battlefronts. So it was little surprise to see some of the handcrafted and textured elements of the worlds Jackson had created over a decade ago be replaced with somewhat dodgy digital creations. Also unsurprising was that the film seemed to have nowhere to go and an awful lot of time to get there, with questions as to the necessity of taking a reasonably slight adventure and turning it into a nearly nine-hour epic proving well worth asking. The true surprise was that despite its 170 minute running time, the film didn't do much to develop any characters beyond our winsome lead Bilbo Baggins (played fantastically once again by Martin Freeman). Even with these flaws, there was enough joy to be had in The Hobbit (an exquisite 'Riddles in the Dark' sequence between Bilbo and Gollum, for instance) that it was easy to overlook the shortcomings and just enjoy the extended stay in Middle Earth's warm cinematic embrace, making it the fantasy film equivalent of a live Phish concert.
There's something perversely avant garde about the way these films are determined to stretch a minimal amount of incident into a maximum amount of running time. They take what is by my count a shade over 100 pages of picaresque from the source material and spin a three-hour epic out of it, so there is of course going to remain some bloat to the overall production. But unlike the first entry, this padding is not without incident; in fact, it's primarily composed of it. The film moves breathlessly from set piece to set piece, none more enjoyable than when our leads escape an Elven prison via barrels and the kinetic Rube Goldberg-style chase that ensues (Jackson's penchant for splatstick makes a welcome return in this middle portion of the trilogy, gleefully orchestrating decapitations and skull-cleavings that harken happily back to his earlier, scuzzier works). And even with this new-found focus on propelling our leads forward towards the Misty Mountains and the lost Dwarven kingdom held captive by a dormant dragon, they still manage to take the time to develop their characters enough to pique our interest. No longer a collection of various prosthetic noses and crazy facial hair, the dwarves that accompany Bilbo have begun to assert unique personalities and viewpoints, and while it is ridiculous it took nearly four hours of cinema for us to get there, it's a very welcome development nonetheless.
The introduction of numerous new characters and settings and new-found focus on giving this ensemble cast at least a modicum of character motivation has the unfortunate effect of relegating Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins to the sidelines of what is ostensibly his own story. That's the biggest shame of this particular installment, as Freeman's titular performance is never less than stellar. The precision of his comedic timing will come as no surprise to his fans, but he handles the film's dramatic requirements equally deftly. In particular, his climactic tête-à-tête with Smaug (voiced with a delicious sense of regal disdain by Benedict Cumberbatch) lives up to the expectations that five hours of slow burn had brought along with it.
Lee (Pushing Daisies) Pace's Elven king Thranduil brings a welcome amount of glam to Middle Earth with his bird-like movements and portent-filled line deliveries, and while it may seem needless to have Orlando Bloom's Legolas shoe-horned into this prequel, both he and new female elf cohort Tauriel (Lost's Evangeline Lilly) perform the valuable function of streamlining narrative and providing connective tissue between set pieces. That said, this is the middle installment of a trilogy-that-didn't-have-to-be, which has the cumulative effect of paying fifteen dollars to watch a master juggler only for the house lights to get cut off with all the objects still floating in midair. It remains to be seen if Jackson can stick the landing with this new trilogy, but The Desolation of Smaug is enough of a course correction from the shaggy initial outing that our hope doesn't appear to be misplaced.