Let’s start with the good news: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a far more watchable film compared to its predecessor. Director Peter Jackson seems to have realized that more often than not, it is better to have a frame that never ceases movement than one that takes a moment of pause. This never tiring frame gets The Hobbits second chapter off to a rip roaring start but turns this leg of the journey into a an unending sprint and not a measured marathon run.
Desolation picks up not long after the end of the first film, Bilbo, Thorin, and the forgetful band of Ereborian dwarves are still being hunted down by the Pale Orc’s forces. This league of the journey takes them to the house of a skin changer, the woods of Mirkwoood, and finally to the decrypted Lake Town.
The first half of Desolation of Smaug finally pays off the road film promises of the first film. The dwarves are constantly pursued into new places for an episode of plot before inevitably being forced further down the path to the Lonely Mountain. Stuff is finally happening.
Within this road movie structure, Jackson and writers Fran Walsh Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro place too much emphasis on plot. Failing to use the episodic structure to inform character, perhaps assuming the first film set up everything enough. It did not. The fact that there is a real good Gimli reference and that is the only thing that distinguishes Gloin from the rest of the pack is a bad thing. Beyond Thorin and Kíli, who is singled out, I still don’t know all the names of this company. There is the one with the Hat, the Fat one, and the bald Weapons Master that reminds me of Vinny Caravella. 13 men is large cast but when you have 161 minutes you should have plenty of time to distinguish them and engender audience connection better than this.
Worst, Desolation loses sight of its two leads: Thorin and Bilbo. The formers character seems to change at the necessity of plot. He goes from bitter dwarf to great leader at the drop of a hat. It is strongly hinted at that he is having a similar struggle to those with the One Ring, his being the Arkenstone - the gem that will unite dwarfdom - only it's never emphasized and Richard Armitage never has the chance to act it out. That’s an interesting arc and foundation to build a quest on. Bilbo Baggins is pushed to the background in favor of Legolas (returning Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Bilbo is relegated to being the savior to the company. All of which goes unnoticed by his company. Martin Freeman continues to be excellent as the not as pensive
Bilbo Baggins when he is given the opportunity. Freeman shows surprising screen presence as he trades words with Smaug aka a Green Screen. The dialog shared between hobbit and dragon is some of the most capital D dialog I've ever heard.The Counselor may have a way with words but nowhere near the grandiosity as the words shared between Bilbo and Smaug. Benedict Cumberbatch vocal performance stands out. Cumberbatch apparently did motion capture for Smaug as well.
Why is Legolas in this movie so much? What started as a fun enough cameo becomes an annoying excuse to cut away from Bilbo and Thorin’s story. Remember that time he rode a shield and an elephant and killed some Orcs? That is his only purpose in Desolation of Smaug: kill orcs needlessly extravagant fight sequence.
Surprisingly Jackson finally adds something to this work that is marginally effective. Tauriel was created for the film and also might be its best character. She along with Kíli get their own little romantic subplot, which proves to be better than you'd expect, at first. By the end the payoff is just a rehash of imagery used in The Fellowship of The Ring. Much of Smaug's intended emotional beats are unearned and not unique, reliant upon the Lord of the Rings trilogies imagery to gain importance with the audience.
Gandalf’s side mission involving Radagast and The Necromancer becomes of more consequence this time around. It will theoretically tie into the Battle of Five Armies better than the book where a random army of Orcs just show up.
The failure to create any sort of emotional connection with the audience underscores Smaug's greatest issue. It has a scale issue, shocking for a trilogy of films nearly 3 hours apiece featuring a giant fire breathing dragon. The problem isn't the framing and composition of actor against a green screen, Jackson does his best with that and for the most part pulls it off. The scale Jackson gives every single set piece is terrible. Everything is turned up to 11. Every chase is a grand insane chase filled with physics defying digital camera work. Such spectacle is fine in moderation (if it wasn’t evident that a trilogy of 3 hour films based on a single work had moderation issues) or, if, the sequences stood out among one another which they really don’t. The dwarves fight CGI monsters and run away, rinse repeat.
Smaug becomes so tiring with sequence after sequence. When the climactic battle with Smaug in the great halls of Erebor occurs is falls flat. First because the rube goldberginan plan of attack is not set up at all simply just occurring in happy coincidence occurs; second being that it lasts a solid 20 minutes or not longer and that is just too long. Too long for a set piece where every sequence prior was treated with just as much scale and spectacle, even they do not warrant such detail. By the time the dwarves pull their trick I had checked out 5 minutes ago (emotionally far earlier).
Jackson does end this film right with a smash cut to black after the cold realization of what Thorin and his plans have wrought. It doesn’t chicken out by staring off into the distance towards the next point on the map. It tries to be on a classic cliffhanger. Smaug’s cliffhanger would have been effective in a much shorter film.
Smaug is a more watchable film than its predecessor with the same issues that plagued it and the franchise as a whole. That might be enough to recommend seeing it in theaters; there really is something to seeing a giant dragon on a giant screen. If that doesn’t seem like a great prospect renting this before the final film There and Back Again wouldn't be the worst thing.