“You certainly have changed, Bilbo Baggins.”
Those words by Gandalf the Grey accurately describe the second installment of “The Hobbit” trilogy.
As “The Desolation of Smaug” opens, director Peter Jackson gives a positively Hitchcockian wink to the crowd as he walks out of a bar in Bree, gnawing on a piece of meat.
The scene is part of a flashback to the night Gandalf, played by Sir Ian McKellan, and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), meet for the first time. The two discuss the need for the dwarves to take back their home from the dragon Smaug.
From this opening scene, Jackson handles the film at a breakneck pace. It is a clear departure from the first film that was laden with sometimes boring detail, an unfortunate consequence of stretching a 310-page book into three films.
Thorin and company encounter a throng of new characters throughout the film. These are headlined by fan favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and a new character, Tauriel, played by “Lost’s” Evangeline Lilly.
The two elves act first as villains, locking up the dwarves after an adventure through Mirkwood Forest. They soon become entangled in a love triangle with one of the dwarves, Kili (Aidan Turner), after helping the company escape. The duo ends up acting as shadows, following the dwarves and aiding the group along the way.
The addition of Lilly to the cast as a major character is a welcome one. After four relatively male-driven films, Tauriel gives young girls someone to cheer for and look up to in the film.
The group also gets help from Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a shape-shifter who roams the countryside as a bear by night. They make their way to the Lonely Mountain with the help of Bard, played by Luke Evans. The character is a welcome addition to the film, acting as a conflicted family man haunted by the dragon in the mountain.
The new additions are strong, but the growth of Bilbo as a hero and of Martin Freeman into the character are among the highlights of the film. Whether he is acting as the voice of reason among impatient dwarves or battling spiders in Mirkwood Forest, Freeman finally looks comfortable in the role.
We even begin to see the cracks in Bilbo’s mental state and his use of the One Ring begins to weigh on him emotionally.
Additionally, Benedict Cumberbatch is stunning as the voice of both the titled dragon and the Necromancer, the shapeless evil that would become Sauron of the latter trilogy. Each word gets progressively more sinister as Cumberbatch slinks through the dialogue, allowing the audience to suspend their disbelief and fully buy into the terror of Smaug.
Armitage gives a strong performance as Thorin, but the rest of his company seems underdeveloped despite Jackson having 182 minutes to build their characters. In the end, this massive cast finds itself hurtling towards an action-packed third act.
Despite improvements, there are still technical quirks with the film. The use of 3D does not add much, if anything at all. The “built for 3D” moments feel cheap and forced. For every Orc head falling through the air, there are two scenes with bees landing on the camera. It hardly breaks new ground.
Some CGI scenes leave something to be desired as well, but not enough to ruin the incredible scope of the film. The newest parts of Middle Earth look gorgeous, and scenes like the barrel escape from Mirkwood are as impressive as any in the series.
The elvish fight scenes and the battle in Erabor with Smaug look stunning in the 48 frame rate Jackson is experimenting with. This mixed success is a frustrating reminder of how spoiled fans were by the original trilogy.
Is “Smaug” an improvement over the first act of Jackson’s new trilogy? It will likely not capture the imagination of audiences the way “The Lord of the Rings” did, and rightfully so. This trilogy deserves to stand alone without the weight of the original’s Academy Awards hanging around its neck.
The movie is smart, and its strongest moments are when it is not trying too hard. The leads turn in memorable performances, and the three hours fly by in the theater.
As a whole, the movie should be considered one of the top on-screen stories of 2013.