It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent." -J.R.R. Tolkien, March 8, 1939 lecture "Fairy Stories"
Tolkien's parenthetical "when achieved" is the kicker of that statement, the acknowledgement of how difficult and rare successful fantasy really is. You know it when you see it. This reviewer did not find that quality in "An Unexpected Journey", the first installment of Peter Jackson's gigantic trilogy based on Tolkien's slim one-volume classic "The Hobbit," but it is there in spades in part two, "The Desolation of Smaug." This middle chapter is about a half-hour too long, and the final third splits the story up into three pieces, weakening the narrative thrust that had been building, but no matter: By the time we get to Bilbo Baggins' confrontation with the dragon Smaug (voiced with delicious sneering evil by Benedict Cumberbatch), the real work has been done. The thematic elements are in place, the emotional tension is highly strung, and the action unfolds in a wave like the fire erupting from the dragon's mouth, overtaking all in its path.
Except for a flashback which shows Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the exiled dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) joining forces in a dark and beer-soaked pub straight out of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales", "The Desolation of Smaug" picks up where the last one left off, with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the posse of rowdy dwarves deep into their journey to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and the dwarves' lost kingdom.
Bilbo, dragged reluctantly from his comfy hole-in-the-ground in the Shire in the first film, is now resigned to his fate, and shows resourcefulness and pluck in one harrowing situation after another. He's also got that mysterious golden ring he found in the goblin tunnel—the one that seems to make him invisible, the one that nobody else knows about, not yet. It will come in handy. Gandalf tries to keep the team together, but forges off on his own solitary spell-breaking mission (which Tolkien's book suggests is undertaken by Gandalf to force Bilbo to gain the trust of the dwarves on his own).