It has to be said right up front that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of my favorite film series of them all. I think I had a very similar experience watching The Fellowship of the Ring to what many kids experienced back in the 1970s with Star Wars: shear awe at an epic story, massive special effects sequences, and enough development to make the characters eternally memorable. Naturally, I was at the first showing for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and mostly enjoyed it, having none of the qualms many other critics had about the pacing or tonal inconsistencies. With The Desolation of Smaug, I'm again taking the opposite stance to what many other critics have said: while many have praised the movie for being a quickly-paced improvement over the first film, I find it a colder experience where characters are lost in countless subplots that are themselves muddled in the confusion of overly-abundant CGI-driven action scenes, although it's still a blast with plenty of details for fans to sink their teeth into. It's certainly the weakest of Peter Jackson's huge Middle-Earth saga, but given how highly I think of the rest of the series, that's still practically a compliment.
Picking up immediately where the last movie left off, we continue to follow Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey Wizard (Ian McKellen), Thorin Oakenshield (Luke Evans), and his band of 12 dwarves as they continue their journey to the Lonely Mountain, seeking to reclaim the treasure guarded by the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Along the way, they must endure the haunted, giant spider-infested forest of Mirkwood, escape an Elvish prison, sneak through an impoverished city ruled by a corrupt leader (Stephen Fry), and finally reclaim their homeland and the incredible riches it contains. Meanwhile, Gandalf continues to investigate some strange happenings that may herald a great evil that has not been seen in thousands of years.
As most fans of the book know, many elements from J.R.R. Tolkien's classic stories have been given massive overhauls. Mere sentences or paragraphs are given 20 minutes or more of expansion, often allowing for more depth to certain situations, but sometimes they just seem to pad the runtime out to justify a three-movie structure based on a single novel. For example, there's a subplot involving an elf and dwarf falling in love, which could have added an interesting character dynamic within all the fighting and danger, but it comes off as a rushed and pointless way to ad 30 minutes to an already-hefty runtime. For every two scenes of engaging mythology-building or necessary character development, there's 15 minutes of tired-out CGI-driven action or meandering subplot that may or may not actually contribute to the greater story, although an entire 3 hours is still missing from the overall narrative, so it's difficult to determine just how "meaningless" these stories are when we have yet to see them conclude.
The acting is stellar almost across the board. Although not the focal point he was in the last installment, Martin Freeman still embodies Bilbo Baggins perfectly whenever a scene calls for him to be at his Hobbity best. As always, Ian McKellen is the perfect Gandalf, providing an engaging presence both alone and when a part of ensemble scenes. Luke Evans ups his game as the determined, sometimes dangerously obsessive, leader of the dwarves Thorin Oakenshield, where he manages to add more depth to his character than in the last Hobbit movie. Newcomer to the series Benedict Cumberbatch has had an almost insurmountable amount of buildup to fulfill and he does so with ease as the titular Smaug the Dragon. Intimidating and almost hypnotic, Cumberbatch's performance fulfills every fan's wildest hopes of a perfect dragon that many fans have waited decades to see.
There are a few actors who do not live up to the high caliber established by their surrounding talent. The weakest link is found in the elves, namely Lee Pace as the elf king Thranduil, who over-acts to the point of laughable at times. Newcomer Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel is given quite a bit to do both in terms of character and action, having to be both a tough fighter and a soft-hearted star-crossed lover of one of the dwarves, but her performance tends to be too one-note to fulfill those requirements. Despite some of these gripes, the cast is still solid overall.
The effects range from fantastic to downright cartoonish. Smaug is certainly the breakout CGI character of this year, using performance capture to allow Benedict Cumberbatch to give the dragon a wider range of minute facial movements than any other fire-breather in cinematic history. One of the few complaints I had about An Unexpected Journey was its unnecessary use of CGI to animate the orcs, but the animation seems to have improved to a point where they almost look completely tangible. Unfortunately, the effects suffer when used to replace actors in some action scenes. It's really obvious when the movie switches from an actor jumping to an unconvincing CGI model flip-flopping around the frame, which often pulled me out of the experience.
Make no mistake: I really liked The Desolation Smaug. Great acting, effects and story are what make this film stand out from the rest this year. It's only when compared to the other Middle-Earth movies that I felt a little let down, but it's still another formidable entry in the cycle. This has been a very divisive film amongst both fans and critics and will still be hotly debated for at least another year on where it ranks amongst Peter Jackson's magnum opus. I, personally, would put this on the very bottom, but I would still gladly recommend this movie to almost anyone.