Director: Peter Jackson
The recurring elements from LOTR are few and far between here. Yes we still have Gandalf, Bilbo and Legolas on side, but the actual story of The Hobbit is finally allowed to flex its muscles. While they took great pains (and much screentime) in the first film introducing the merry band of dwarves, this time round we finally got to know them. Rather than just seeing a motley band of hairy warriors, characterisation crept in at last and I came away caring for them as much as I do about Bilbo, which I certainly didn't after the first film. I came to realise that even though this is the story of Bilbo Baggins, really the overarching storyline is about the dwarves, just as LOTR wasn't really about Frodo at all. The title 'The Hobbit' is, in itself, misleading in that way. However, saying that, Martin Freeman at last managed to fill the boots of The Hero here; his unique brand of cunning and precision makes him a very likeable lead, and I think it takes a comic actor to really be able to pull this off. I never really understood his casting in the first film, but I totally understand it now.
Ian McKellen of course inhabits Gandalf once more; it's the character he was born to play and I doubt he'll ever top it, on film at least. Armitage is beginning to resemble Viggo Mortensen more and more, but this seems certainly deliberate in the creation of a 'rightful King'. Bloom and Lilly's elves are majestic and beautiful, while Cumberbatch delivers a powerful voice performance as the dragon Smaug. There's a delightfully smarmy turn from Stephen Fry midway through, but the stand-out for me was actually Luke Evans. As the conflicted bargeman who initially helps the dwarves before realising what he's getting into, he plays a very human character whose conflicting motives and drive to protect his family make him by far the most rounded of the new characters in the whole franchise. He's not a character I remember from reading the book as a child, but he makes a massive impact on the film and it's a performance I didn't expect from an actor whose résumé isn't exactly alight with notable film performances.
It is a beautiful film though. New Zealand never looks finer as when it's masquerading as Middle Earth, while the mines, the dwarf kingdom and the elfen palaces look just as impressive as they have throughout the franchise. It's easy to dismiss The Hobbit films as just another franchise now, especially because of the way it appears that the films have been split into three solely to capitalise on a highly successful formula, but I do feel there's a lot more to the world created here than in any other franchise on film. Maybe it's because of the rules already established by the phenomenal LOTR films, but this expansion on it, exploring all the more elements of the same world, are just as impressive. The sweeping vistas are stunning, the scenery breathtaking and the cinematography is just as ambitious as its predecessors. Peter Jackson has his head switched on here and I feel that while Film 1 may have consisted of a lot of meddling from the studio execs, Film 2 feels a lot more like his own work. I don't actually remember what happens in the final part of the book, but I'm excited to see the conclusion now, while I hadn't been that bothered before. I maintain that this should really have been two films over three, but that doesn't negate from the fact that The Desolation of Smaug is a thoroughly enjoyable and enthralling watch.