With wittier action and a few more sharply defined characters, this second episode in Peter Jackson's trilogy is more engaging than the somewhat over-packed An Unexpected Journey. Once again, the key to enjoying the film is to distance it from the beloved novel: this is a big adventure movie as opposed to Tolkien's light-hearted romp. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
There isn't much actual plot, as we are between the set-up and conclusion, so the film consists of a series of set-pieces as Bilbo (Freeman) and his band of dwarves continue their journey to reclaim the dwarf throne in the Lonely Mountain. Gandalf (McKellen) heads off to confront the shifty, shadowy Necromancer (Cumberbatch), while Bilbo and crew head into the creepy Mirkwood, where they confront gigantic spiders before being captured by wood-elves. This is where they meet Legolas (Bloom), whose feisty sidekick Tauriel (Lilly) falls for sexy dwarf Kili (Turner) as they continue their journey to Lake-town. There they get help from Bard (Evans) as they launch their final assault on the mountain, where the dragon Smaug (also Cumberbatch) is napping on the dwarves' vast treasure.
Jackson directs with a spark of energy and humour that holds our attention even when things begin to look a little too digitally animated (basic laws of physics apparently don't apply in Middle Earth). And each sequence also provides some depth of character, especially in the overall journey of Bilbo, nicely played by Freeman as a guy who is only just discovering his own ingenuity and bravery. By contrast, McKellen's plot is much darker as he faces off against unnerving evil. As in the first film, the other strong character is Thorin (Armitage), the heir to the dwarf throne grappling with the idea of a return to power.
There's plenty to enjoy in this movie, which combines comedy, drama, action and even some horror along the way. Smaug is a bit too chatty, but is also a thrilling climactic character who gives the film a genuinely jarring cliffhanger finale. And the centrepiece action sequence, in which Bilbo orchestrates an escape using wine barrels, is witty and exhilarating. All of this feels rather a lot more intense than the Tolkien novel, but this is the kind of satisfying, exciting epic we rarely get anymore. It's also fun to see Jackson link these films with his Lord of the Rings trilogy. And it leaves us gasping to see Part 3.
Genre: Sci fi/Fantasy
Run time: 161 mins
In Theaters: Friday 13th December 2013
Box Office USA: $258.4M
Box Office Worldwide: $958.4M
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Production compaines: WingNut Films, New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 74%
Fresh: 159 Rotten: 56
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, Ken Stott as Balin, Graham McTavish as Dwalin, William Kircher as Bifur, James Nesbitt as Bofur, Stephen Hunter as Bombur, Dean O'Gorman as Fili, Aidan Turner as Kili, Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug / The Necromancer, Lee Pace as Thranduil, Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman, Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, Orlando Bloom as Legolas, Billy Connolly as Dain Ironfoot, Mikael Persbrandt as Beorn, Manu Bennett as Azog, Stephen Fry as The Master of Laketown, John Bell as Bain, Sylvester McCoy as Radagast, Terry Notary as Goblin, Peter Hambleton as Gloin, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Stephen Colbert as Laketown Spy, Jed Brophy as Nori, Sarah Peirse as Hilda Blanca, Mary Nesbitt as Tilda, Peggy Nesbitt as Sigrid