Movie critic Mark Kermode has become fond of using the phrase "Hobbity Tosh" in respect of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and it's predecessor. I think in part its because Kermode doesn't have a great deal of tolerance for the sort of fictional universes which require a lot of (often cumbersome) exposition to understand, and partly because in the specific case of all the Middle Earth movies there is quite a lot of sitting back and listening to some group sing a song or tell a tale about something that happened to their grandfathers. It's a fine balance, which can give depth and weight to tale if done right, or as with An Unexpected Journey, suck the urgency out of the narrative without adding anything to the mood. It's got to be said that even though I enjoyed TH: AUJ, it didn't assuage my fears that this trilogy was going to be much more than an overstretched self-indulgence.
Expectations duly lowered, I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug a whole lot more.
So we start where the last film left off, with the company of Dwarves and their plus one running from orcs and wargs, and quickly meet up with Beorn the Skinchanger because, well basically because they do in the books. Yes, he comes up again, but it's nice, if slightly pointless scene that the more ruthless Lord of the Rings movies may have sliced out altogether, much like they did with Tom Bombadil. He serves very little narrative purpose in this film, and at this point, 20 minutes in, as Gandalf sods off to Dol Guldur again, I feared I was in for more of the same. It all comes together in Mirkwood, however.
The spiders sequence has some nice touches (such as the Spider Dialogue when Bilbo wears the ring) but its the arrival of the Elves that starts to light the film up. Thranduil (Lee Pace) is just the right level of jerkishness, a far cry from the films usual glowing portrayal of Elves, and Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel may be totally invented for the films but address the woeful gender balance in the series as a whole and is a pretty decent, interesting character in her own right. Generally the Woodland Elves feel different, and more dangerous, and leads into a great sequence as the Dwarves escape downriver towards Laketown.
Here we find how the movie is going to fix one of the great problems with the book - that of Smaug's eventual death. Because it transpires that his famous (and oft spoofed) "voonerables" are the result of a wound taken in the destruction of Dale, and the "Black Arrows" are Dwarven Ballista Bolts, and Bard has more presence in the town than being some bloke who pops up in a moment of crisis. Whilst not directly relevant to this film, its a big and welcome change for the arc of the trilogy. I'm far less convinced by all the messing about in Dol Guldur stuff with Gandalf and Radagast, which has yet to justify its inclusion in any meaningful way.
Which brings us to the Big Lizard himself, who rightly dominates the final third of the film. He's impressive, and wonderfully voiced, and gets to both his overly polite attempt to murderise Bilbo, and an added rampage against some interloping Dwarves, all of which I hugely enjoyed. I do think Dwarves should probably stop building their halls with such large open spaces, however, which only seems to encourage things like Dragons and Balrogs to move in.
In the end everything that worked about An Unexpected Journey continues to work here; the cast is excellent, the scenery is fantastic and its generally fitting to the Hobbits lighter, younger tone. After a slightly baggy start, The Desolation of Smaug moves with a lot more purpose, and shows some thoughtful, deliberate changes to the books plot, as well as continuing to lever in a chunk more of the "Unfinished Tales" and some outright fanfiction. It leaves the story well poised to it's final act, so roll on next christmas, and one final trip to Middle Earth.