Without the 40 minute set-up of irritating character introductions that halted An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug falls more in line with Part 1’s more riveting second and third acts. The 161 minute running time feels more like a 100m sprint than a marathon, making this middle chapter of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit the most accessible addition to the Middle Earth saga.
The dwarves are given greater chances to stamp their significance in the cavalcade. Balin’s constant display of wisdom is a counterweight to Thorin’s aggressive passion to regain the lost kingdom from Smaug while Kili’s romantic subplot with Elvin warrior Tauriel shows the start of potential ties between the two conflicting races. Bombur also becomes a badass-in-a-barrel during a river chase sequence which is easily one of the most inventive action set pieces I’ve seen all year. Despite this much-needed character distinction, there’s little camaraderie between the dwarves and the underdog Hobbit throughout the majority of the film – especially given the number of times Bilbo busts his butt to save them all.
However, the highlight of the prequel trilogy thus far comes where it’s most needed: with the reveal of Smaug. From the opening compositions that tease a shot of a tail or an eyeball to sweeping camera movements that reveal all, Jackson achieves a magnificent and gradual sense of enormity to the beast, perfectly complemented by Benedict Cumberbatch’s eloquent and terrifying vocal talents. In high frame rate, Smaug is consistently awe-inspiring to behold – a surprising feat when most of Desolation’s CGI elements nestle in awkward uncanniness with the 48 frame bump.