'The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug' Is A Vast Improvement Over The Original

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Warning: There are some spoilers ahead.

"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is out in theaters Friday.

We saw the second installment to Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" trilogy Tuesday night in 3D and enjoyed it a lot. 

The film by no means is perfect, but it is a vast improvement upon the first. ( The second time around there aren't any  musical numbers by the dwarves , so that's a plus.)

It's faster paced with a new threat around every bend whether from spiders, elves, Orcs, or a deadly dragon and should be a solid box-office win for Warner Bros. come this weekend.

"The Desolation of Smaug" wastes no time picking up right where the first film ended with hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continuing his perilous journey with 13 dwarves and the wizard Gandalf  (Sir Ian McKellen) to the Lonely Mountain to recover the lost dwarf treasure from a dragon.

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Another downside to all of these characters, if you haven't memorized all of the dwarf names you'll be finding another way to identify the weary travellers (we suggest going by beard).

And i t's clear to say that of all the characters, Freeman masterfully delivers in his return as Bilbo.   

For a small hobbit, he’s a ball of fire on screen. Having seen all of the “Lord of the Rings” (LOTR) films, Bilbo manages to be more courageous and do more in one scene at the beginning of the film than Frodo (Elijah Wood) did in three. (If you think about it, someone else was always saving his life — Sam — and in the third film, he was getting dragged and carried through most of it.) 

However, other than the dwarves and Gandalf — who by now feels like a dear old friend welcomed into your home as the old wizard — the film has a lot of new faces (along with one old).  

Here's a quick rundown of who you need to know:

Orlando Bloom returns as LOTR favorite Legolas
Lee Pace plays Legolas' father, King of the wood-elves, Thranduil
Evangeline Lilly ("Lost") joins as a female elf, Tauriel, who Legolas has his eyes set on.
Stephen Fry (“V for Vendetta”) joins as a conniving and corrupt politician, the Master of Lake-town
Luke Evans (“Fast & Furious 6”) plays a widowed father of three children who helps the dwarves on their quest.
Benedict Cumberbatch is not one, but two villains —  the menacing dragon Smaug — and the less-physical, but even more threatening, Necromancer.  

Because there are so many characters, you often feel like you’re watching not one movie, but three, or at the least three to four different mini-sodes as the story shifts back and forth between Bilbo and the dwarves, Bilbo and the ring, elves Legolas and Tauriel, and Gandalf’s side adventure having to do with a big tie-in to the “Lord of the Rings.”   

However, some of the characters are welcome.  

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Sure, Legolas wasn’t in “The Hobbit,” but it gives fans a reason to see the film while also creating another bridge between the prequel and sequel. True to form, Legolas is a master with a bow and arrow and he delivers some of the best action sequences to see on screen. Prime example: At one point he’s hobbling around on dwarf heads shooting arrows at Orcs.     

He’s still a bit rough around the edges at this point, but we’re watching the makings of a great warrior and he does NOT disappoint every time he's on screen.  

We soon learn Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games” isn’t the only arrow slinger on screen worth rooting for with the entry of Tauriel (Lilly). The “she-elf,” as she’s called in the film, is a new character director Peter Jackson invented for the film who gives girls an added reason to see the film.  

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One of my biggest issues watching this film is despite all these characters, there aren’t a lot of redeeming ones who I want to rally behind. The viewer isn’t really sure who they’re supposed to side with as a protagonist, mainly because they’re kind of a bunch of selfish jerks.   

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We think Bilbo just wants more time to play with the ring honestly.

You have Bilbo, who despite selflessly pledging his allegiance to the dwarves, is a liar and a thief (having stole the “One” ring from Gollum and mischievously hiding it from Gandalf). While it’s a pleasure watching him take a sword to spiders in the film’s first leg, unlike the dwarves, he’s fighting them not to save his crew, nor to really save his own skin, but to save the ring — his ever-growing precious — from the wretched snare of the spider.

Though Bilbo’s character grows as the movie progresses — he saves the dwarves a few times — you’re never really sure if he is doing these acts selflessly or if he’s just helping the elves for a share of the treasure Smaug the dragon is guarding.  

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Thorin Oakenshield, probably not your first pick for a trustworthy ally.

Then there’s Thorin Oakenshield the leader of the dwarves who multiple times is warned numerous times of dwarf greed and what it can do to a person. There’s a part of the film where his true allegiance comes into question when he just sits back and let’s Bilbo risk his life for his clan without lifting a finger to help him (you can see it in the trailers when one of the other dwarfs defiantly defends the hobbit briefly saying, “His name is Bilbo”).  

Though Thorin sort of comes to his senses (it’s clear he still doesn’t completely trust Bilbo) and the dwarves and Bilbo all work together in the end against the big bad dragon, it really all seems like a means to an end for everyone involved — especially Thorin.   

After *mini-spoiler* seeing him side with the weasel Master of Lake-town *mini-spoiler*, I’m not sure that’s a dwarf I’d want to align myself with.  

At this point, you’re not really sure what to make of Gandalf. Forget what you know about him from “LOTR.” Like the first film, he’s with the crew for a few moments before he disappears on his own adventure in Dol Guldur after being whisked away from a vision.   

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His role is exactly like that in LOTR. Show up in the beginning of the series, disappear for a long time, come back magically as a brand new wizard to save the day. At least, that’s how we predict it will turn out for movie three: Gandalf saves the day.  

Perhaps the only real likable character — other than Legolas, Tauriel, and (sure, why not?) Gandalf — is mysterious secondary character Bard. Maybe it’s the added family element, but compared to all of the other characters, he’s the only one who seems completely trustworthy, selfless, and righteous. There’s plenty more to his story we don’t know that I’m sure will be shared in the final installment.

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Give us more Bard, please.

Enough about the characters because there is a lot of non-stop action in the sequel that lends itself to great cinematography.

The spider scene early on in the film was a fantastic use of Freeman that I won't give away but that shows once-again Bilbo is quite the asset to the dwarves despite his small size.

One that many reviews touched upon, is the epic waterfall barrel scene that pits the elves vs. the dwarves, the Orcs vs. the dwarves, and the elves vs. the Orcs. It’s one of the most imaginatively shot and orchestrated fight sequences I’ve seen in a long time.   

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The creative use of barrels brings to mind playing Donkey Kong on the Nintendo 64. And — as mentioned earlier — it's fun to watch Legolas prancing around on the heads of dwarves to take effortless shots at Orcs.  

The most aggravating and absolutely frustrating scene to watch comes near the end of the film *mini-spoilers* when the dwarves finally do arrive at the Lonely Mountain and they can’t figure out how to get inside. Rather than take a minute to think it through they try a few mindless ways to break down a wall that ultimately prove futile. Just like that, they give up on their mission and decide to head home.   

What? You’re telling me that after months of traveling and risking your lives countless times that once you’re so close to getting what you want, you’re going to let a little wall stop you? Sorry. I’m just not buying it.  

Of course, they eventually get inside, but at this point, you feel like these people may not even deserve the riches inside for being so stubborn. *mini-spoiler*  

That aside, the best may be the final half hour or so while Bilbo encounters the dragon Smaug and Gandalf goes toe-to-toe with the shadowy Necromancer.  

The funny part is that both Bilbo and Gandalf are fighting different villains played by the same man at the same time. Yes, you probably wouldn’t realize unless you were told but Benedict Cumberbatch not only delivers the sly, velvety allure of the monstrous dragon Smaug, but also the chilling monologues of the Necromancer the wizard faces.  

If you’re a fan of the book, there’s a big twist with what happens in the Smaug encounter that I won’t spoil here since the film isn’t out yet. It’s a lot longer and more drawn out than in the novel. Bilbo’s altercation with the dragon in the Lonely Mountain becomes MUCH much more complicated.   

What Jackson does is unexpected going in to the film but makes sense as you’re watching. Otherwise, a third film really would have felt unnecessary for this prequel series.  

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You won't be disappointed by Cumberbatch's take on Tolkien's iconic dragon.

Both instances of Cumberbatch’s vocals are quite grand and for “Sherlock” fans its a pleasure to see him reunited with Freeman on screen in different form before the show’s January return.  

The reveal of the dragon is ultimately satisfying as well. Bringing Smaug to life has never been an easy feat for anyone. (Look at the cartoon version.) This interpretation is definitely worthy of Tolkien’s character.  

In many ways, “The Desolation of Smaug” is like the second “Lord of the Rings” installment, “The Two Towers.”   

Both have multiple story arcs that are setting up for big showdowns in their respective third films. We see growing Orc armies, *spoiler* the eye of Sauron *spoiler*, the Necromancer, and a giant nuisance that just won’t go away in the forms of Gollum and Smaug (except one is frightfully more scary, breaths fire, and is actually a threat to humanity).   

Overall, the film was much more captivating then the first to watch and didn’t feel nearly as long as it was (2 hours 41 mins).  

We saw it in 3D at what I believe was normal frame rate. That felt kind of unfair, since most of the showings are supposed to be in the higher-frame rate. So I can’t comment on whether it was too much on the eyes. Though there were times the screen did get too bright — any time Smaug breathed fire toward the screen — and I had to look away. 

A few other quick notes:  

Funniest part of the film that’s not meant to be funny: 

Maybe it’s just me, but look out for the scene when the Bilbo and co. are entering the wood-elves home. The introduction of the elf King Thranduil plays out like a perfume / shampoo ad.  

Best line of the film: 
Delivered by one of Bard’s little girls: “Why are there dwarves coming out of our toilet? Will they bring us luck?”

Oh yes, and for those looking, keep a watchful eye out for director Peter Jackson at the very start of the film. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.



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