If there’s one thing you should never show the press days before a film’s release date, it’s a work print. Work prints haven’t been finalized for a theatrical release, and usually feature a temporary music track and unfinished visual effects. While I have no way of knowing if my screening for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was in fact a work print, it sure had that look. (Update: this was in fact not a work print, but a combination of theater/studio error.) Tinny dialogue, questionable character composites, sketchy 3D, muted colors, and no high frame rate? This didn’t even look as good as it does in the trailers or TV spots.
So, how does the film hold up compared to the hype? I’ll say the same thing for Smaug that I did when the credits rolled for Catching Fire: “This is the film the first one should have been.”
In part two of Peter Jackson’s magnum opus adaptation, we meet up with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) in a bar where Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) offers to help Thorin reclaim his land. You’ll remember from An Unexpected Journey that Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) claimed the Lonely Mountain of Erebor from the dwarfs. Jumping right back into the action, we find Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the remaining company of dwarves — Dwalin (Graham McTavish), Balin (Ken Stott), Kíli (Aidan Turner), Fíli (Dean O’Gorman), Dori (Mark Hadlow), Nori (Jed Brophy), Ori (Adam Brown), Óin (John Callen), Glóin (Peter Hambleton), Bifur (William Kircher), Bofur (James Nesbitt), and Bombur (Mikael Persbrandt) — who are still being chased by the Orcs lead by Azog (Manu Bennett) and his son Bolg (Lawrence Makoare), as they enlist the aid of Elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) also gets caught up in their quest to kill Smaug and reclaim both the Lonely Mountain and Lake-town.
While it may sound like The Desolation of Smaug has way more going on than An Unexpected Journey, that very well may be. But the plot feels a lot tighter than in the first film. I say that’s because the Journey was all setup for the next two sections. As for Smaug, Peter Jackson — along with his co-writers: wife Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro — has streamlined the plot and has a tighter runtime making the pace fly by.
And what can be said about Smaug himself aside from being one of the most spectacular characters in years. Menacing and brilliant, he is the scary dragon we expected to see. And while all of the Lord of the Rings films end on cliffhangers (aside from Return of the King of course), this is the biggest one yet. I was absolutely not ready for this to be over. Even running 156 minutes, I was more than willing to sit through the remaining possible three-hour conclusion that will be There and Back Again. To put it simply, The Desolation of Smaug is one of the year’s biggest and best films, finally delivering everything we expect from another addition to the J.R.R. Tolkien film legacy.