THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is the best middle film that money and talent can produce. This is not an indictment, it is, rather, an embrace of the inherent problem of the second of three filmic installments, viz to wit, if you havent seen the first one, there is little even the most resourceful filmmaker, and Peter Jackson is certainly that, can do to help you. He does add what amounts to a small preface to the proceedings, but otherwise plunges in right where the last film left off, and for those that have just seen that film, and I recommend you do as close to taking in SMAUG as possible, it is the best possible choice among a plethora of bad ones.
Suitably mythic, rife with gravitas, yet never a hint of the ponderous, SMAUG continues the adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the little hobbit en route to discovering how oddly not out of his depth he is in his new life of burglary, battle, and ill-tempered dragons beyond the sleepy rustic charms of his Hobbitown home. Though the eponymous dragon doesnt appear until the last act, the action never drags as Thorin (Richard Armitage doing the seemingly impossible by injecting sex appeal into the person of a Tolkien dwarf) leads his band of avenging dwarves, Bilbo in tow courtesy of super wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan), to recover from a disastrous encounter with the Orcs, and march through the treacherous terrain between them and the dwarf kingdom that they are determined to retake from said dragon. Of course Its more complicated than that, with a skin walker offering either death or hospitality, elves with their own agenda, a tumbling in barrels through various terrains, and a fishing village reduced to the titular desolation by Smaug before he took a nap on top of the dwarves golden mountain of treasure.
The characters are colorful, the danger from fearsome reptilian orcs, giant spiders with a taste for sentient flesh, forbidden love, and a cluelessly pompous puppet king (the superb Stephen Fry) heart-stopping. There is, if you look very closely, a method to the suspense, with the last-minute rescue being the norm, but aside from that one persistent trope, there is nothing wanting here, including the fact that there are no bad performances by either analog or digital thespians. Indeed, there are all of the highest order, but Freemans is nothing short of magnificent. Its only putative flaw is that he makes it look too easy. Make no mistake, this endearing, sometimes surprising, blend of humor and pathos should be anything but easily dismissed. The smooth way he transitions from fidgety uncertainty to the boldness necessary for self-preservation, and the dark leanings that the gold ring of invisibility draws forth to his obvious but helpless consternation. Its a performance that seems obvious, but is actually subtle, complex, and scathingly original.
As for the special effects, including the now-ubiquitous 3D, they combine technical excellence and emotional resonance. There are the pretty tricks of having bees fly out into the audience, but there is also the excellent sense of enormous space as Smaug stalks Bilbo in the vast underground treasure vault, where the clink of gold coins becomes one of the most ominous sounds in the universe. The climactic battle at the end, which, along with the film, ends with a devastating abruptness, is a sumptuous feast for the eyes while also being a terrifying roller-coaster ride. All credit to the imaginations of Jackson et als at work here, but kudos, too, to the silky malevolence that Benedict Cumberbatch, the hardest working actor this year, supplies as the voice of Smaug.
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is a remarkable achievement, and it does what the middle portion of any story should do, set up the ending, and make we in the audience, even those who have read the books incessantly, impatient to see it unfold.