The second film in the Hobbit trilogy begins exactly where the first left off. Bilbo along Gandalf the Grey, Thorin and his motley crew of dwarves are still on the way towards the Lonely Mountain. Orcs, led by the merciless Azog the Defiler are in hot pursuit. The sense of immediacy and danger is thrust upon the audience right away as opposed to the rather meandering beginning of the first film (My review of Unexpected Journey). If you've read the original text then you know the score and, frankly, this is a review not a synopsis so I won't go there.
Those who bemoan the length of the first and this one please note that aside from the original Tolkien work, The Hobbit, Jackson and crew are also drawing from the supplemental Quest for Erebor that was initially intended for inclusion in the appendices of the Lord of the Rings novels but was excluded due to length. It was later published in 1980's Unfinished Tales by Tolkien's son, Christopher. That "padding" that many have complained about (heck even I did) comes from that and other places too.
What we've got, thus far, from the two films are a rather misshapen spectacle that has the ability to dazzle but at the same time be a bit boring. It also happens to be rather dark and depressing most of the time. Perhaps the magic of Middle Earth that we once were all so enthralled by over a decade ago is gone? Not quite. One thing Mr. Jackson learned from the first film? Liven things up a bit more. The second improves significantly over the first in that department.
That immediacy mentioned earlier really sets the tone for the rest of the movie as there are few moments where we aren't thrusting forward into the heart of more clamor and struggle. The film's pacing is, for the most part, far better this time around compared to last time. The action is near relentless at times with, thankfully, a few opportunities to breath. These moments were the ones I ended up loving the most. Those quieter moments are among the best points in the film (well aside from Smaug's screen time. More on that in a bit). One fine example of this is near the beginning when Bilbo and company are trekking through the dark forest of Mirkwood. The hobbit climbs up a tree to get a look around at the topography and get his bearings. His head bursts through the canopy to the fresh air, the sunlight pouring down on him and for but a brief moment all is well. A swarm of gorgeous blue butterflies is disturbed by his motion and sets off all around him. Momentary respite before the onslaught begins yet again. It isn't until the third act that things get a little hairy. Juggling three separate parts of the story while making cuts between them does make the overall feel of it go a bit wonky near the end but that is mostly just nitpicking.
The acting, all around, is quite solid. Freeman is the best Hobbit to have ever Hobbited. Sorry. It's true. I love Elijah Wood, don't get me wrong, but Freeman continues to prove why he was perfectly cast in the role. The second film shows us far more nuance to the character and a man who is finding his courage, finding his voice within the group. Richard Armitage is given more leeway with Thorin this time around and it pays off. The first film painted him more as a Dwarven version of Aragorn where this time we get to see far more of what makes him the right fit to be King under the Mountain. Gandalf, as always, is expertly played by McKellen and Lee Pace as the Elven ruler of Mirkwood was a pleasant surprise as well. The addition of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) will probably anger most Tolkien purists but it was quite a good one. She owns the role and adds a much-needed dose of strong femininity and ass-kicking Elf to the mix. Orlando Bloom returning as Legolas I could have done without. Just felt unnecessary to me. We get to see a bit more of the Dwarven cast as well though only Balin (Ken Stott) and Killi (Aidan Turner) really get much more screen-time. They make the most of it, though, imbuing the formerly faceless characters with real personality and heft. Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman does a fine job with his role and I can't wait to see more from him in the third installment.
Visually its a treat as is Jackson's way. The 3D, again, is totally not necessary and I didn't bother to see it in High Frame Rate. No one in the industry is adapting it and I doubt it will be doing so any time soon. Don't waste your money on it (PSA over). Jackson shows, time and again, that he can frame an action sequence like nobody else in the industry. The escape from Mirkwood is one of the most over-the-top bananaballs things I've seen in a movie in years and it was totally worth the price of admission. Smaug is an utter delight rendered with such expert detail and sense of presence that I rarely felt I was looking at a digital character but a truly living and breathing dragon capable of inflicting such tortuous agony upon Bilbo. He is, of course, voiced with sepulchral menace by Benedict Cumberbatch. Jackson totally delivered on the promise of Smaug from the first film here. We even get to see the horrifying glory of the Necromancer as well. The digital canvas upon which Jackson paints the world of Tolkien is staggering and downright gorgeous. One of my chief complaints with the first film was that the quality of the CGI fluctuated. It was especially true for Azog. He lacked that sense of presence that Gollum possessed. This time around the ruthless Orcs, ever at the heels of the merry band of travelers, is rendered wonderfully.
Could the first movie have been trimmed considerably and made for a good first act to, perhaps, only two movies? Probably. That said the second film really does deliver a much better, more streamlined experience that, while still lacking some in emotional depth for some of the ancillary characters, delivers a fun spectacle that is quite enjoyable. I've been seeing it get ravaged by certain folks. Some hate it for the changes made. Some hate it for the length. It could have been shorter, sure, but I just expected an overlong movie from him. Bilbo and friends were caught in the midst of setting up the story during An Unexpected Journey and, sadly, it suffered for it. This time Jackson wastes no time in actually executing that story.