If expectations for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey were high on the basis of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it's fair to say that expectations had dropped considerably for The Desolation of Smaug thanks to the languid letdown that was An Unexpected Journey, even if we all know what Peter Jackson is really capable of. This second film had to inject some life into the story and deliver us a dragon. A year on from that first film and I think my review of it (read that here) was generous, as I can't help but look back upon it unfavourably, nor could I summon any motivation to sit through it again to remind myself of the story. But that doesn't matter since The Desolation of Smaug is thankfully a better film.
This proves to be a film of two halves. Initially it carries on with more of the same, as this troupe of dwarves and a hobbit trek to the mountain where they believe they will claim back what's theirs. A diversion with the elves (including the reappearance of Legolas) and the introduction of Luke Evans as Bard all offer more than we got first time round, even if none of this is particularly exciting. But more importantly there's a bit of life injected into the film as a sense of urgency to their quest builds, along with a fear of what they might meet in the mountain. Which leads to the second half where we finally meet the loquacious monster, Smaug himself. Immediately this is the best part of these two films as Bilbo's treacherous challenge arises at last and his hobbiting skills become essential. This is far more visually thrilling with the mountains of glistening gold in this cavernous room rolling ocean like around the lithe movements of the dragon. There's something pernicious lurking beneath the alluring surface.
Speaking of visuals I hunted out a 48 frames per second (high frame rate) screening, much as I did for An Unexpected Journey. And much like that first part I thought it enhanced the experience. Most of what I said about this new format a year ago still stands (you can read that here), yet this is still only the second opportunity to watch a feature shot at such high quality in your local cinema. There's still of course a period of adjustment as the first scene has an air of awkward fakeness, but that's undoubtedly a byproduct of the setting and to fully appreciate this technology we need to see it applied to a modern day set film or sci-fi. Yet again the darker action scenes are pleasingly enhanced, like everything with Smaug or very noticeably the spider attack in the woods. In this latter sequence, although we're dealing with cgi spiders, the extra clarity heightened the sense of reality and thus the terrifying nature, something which surprisingly struck me as I sat there. And again all the usual frustrating issues that come from polarised 3D were diminished thanks to the higher frame rate, bar of course the uncomfortable glasses. I'm still a firm believer in the usage of 48 frames per second and wish more directors and cinematographers were pushing to use it as I again can't wait to see more in this format.
The Desolation of Smaug is ultimately a vast improvement on An Unexpected Journey, but like that first part it too lacks not only the epic scope and depth that makes the Lord of the Rings trilogy so satisfying, but also the interesting characterisation. If the first film was an introduction drawn out to it's death, this part finally delivers some of what we've been promised, even if it still takes a while to eventually get there. As a whole this doesn't rise beyond being anything more than merely good and it's tempting to speculate what more Jackson could've done, but the answer really only is 'less'. Here's hoping the final part is not just an interesting first half and a ridiculously drawn out conclusion, after all, we're paused at a potentially exciting point. At least this has left me more curious about the final part than how uninterested the first film left me.