2012's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which kicked off a trilogy that adapted and expanded on the classic J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy novel, was met with something of a mixed response from critics and audiences alike. While I read few reviews that outright panned the film, the general opinion was that it paled in comparison to director Peter Jackson's earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I can understand these complaints, mainly due to the fact that instead of that trilogy, which stuck to one movie per book, Jackson chose to add plenty of new material to extend the length of his Hobbit, stretching what was initially planned to be two films into three. Maybe it helped that I'm not a diehard fan of Tolkien's books, but I greatly enjoyed An Unexpected Journey. There were plenty of great action and visuals, some solid character interactions, and a good pace.
And now we come to The Desolation of Smaug, the middle chapter. My opinion of this is somewhat similar to my opinion of The Two Towers, the middle Lord of the Rings book and film, and it might seem a little controversial, considering how beloved that title is in both forms. As much as I enjoyed that, I can easily name it my least favorite of the original trilogy, due to it containing some slightly more mundane scenes that drag down its early and middle parts. The Desolation of Smaug, for as much fun as I had with it, suffers from this same flaw a bit - but that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable overall.
We continue our Middle-Earth journey with the titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and a group of warrior dwarves led by the stoic Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who set out in the first movie to reclaim the dwarves' hometown from the fearsome dragon Smaug (Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Besides the ongoing threat of a party of orcs out for revenge on Thorin, they run afoul of other problems, including carnivorous giant spiders and an unforgiving elf king (Lee Pace). The group eventually sneaks themselves into the town neighboring Smaug's lair via an expert archer named Bard (Luke Evans), which eventually leads to their confrontation with the beast himself.
While I enjoyed early scenes with the spiders and elves, I thought that far too much time was spent in Bard's hometown, and Bard himself, while having a tragic background, didn't make for a very interesting character. This echoes my feelings with The Two Towers, where I thought that the subplot with Aragorn's group visiting the kingdom of Rohan dragged a bit. I should be clear, though, and say that none of it is bad. I just personally thought it wasn't as engaging as the rest of the film.
Thankfully, the other elements fall into place nicely. So many of the set pieces in this film work wonderfully. The scene with the spiders is genuinely creepy and tense, and another part, where Bilbo and the dwarves make their escape in a raging river via barrels, offers plenty of excitement, and a particularly clever moment with one dwarf that left my audience cheering.
And as for Smaug himself? I'm just going to admit something. When this adaptation was announced, and then when the dragon was teased at but never fully shown onscreen in the initial film, I started to personally hype the character up in my mind, thinking that I would be stunned by how he looked and acted. Going in, I was starting to wonder if I set myself up for disappointment in that regard.
That is not the case. Smaug is amazing to watch, thanks to a mixture of great CG, Cumberbatch's performance, and the dialog given to him - I guarantee his final line will give most viewers chills. And don't go in worrying that the filmmakers will skimp on Smaug, as the entire last 40 or so minutes of the film is devoted to Bilbo and the dwarves confroting him. He is a delight to witness.
On a less positive note, I will also say that another plot-related disappointment I had with the film was the reduced involvement of McKellen as Gandalf, who has been one of my favorite characters in both trilogies. He leaves the party very early in the film to investigate what turns out to be the planned resurrection of Lord of the Rings' main villain, Sauron, and while his scenes are still interesting, they're few and far between, and don't have any resolution, obviously waiting for the final film to wrap themselves up.
Finally, I have to warn people going in that, unlike An Unexpected Journey, which did a good job of offering a thematic conclusion while obviously still having more story to tell, The Desolation of Smaug unfortunately follows in Catching Fire's footsteps, and has an extremely abrupt cliffhanger for an ending. Though in some ways, I think it does work in leaving you wanting to see the next film, I still like middle movies in trilogies, such as The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight, to feel like they've wrapped up their individual plots by the end. This doesn't do that at all, and if I remember correctly, the conflict it sets up at the end will probably last all of 10 minutes in the third film. This is probably just an unfortunate side effect of the mid-production decision to stretch two films into three, but it's still worth noting.
If you can't tell, there were things about The Desolation of Smaug that I didn't really care for. But at the same time, they are outnumbered by the things I really enjoyed. Just because I'd say that I found An Unexpected Journey to be the better film of the two doesn't mean that this one isn't quality, especially since I've seen numerous other reviews declaring it an improvement on its predecessor. If you liked the first Hobbit film, this is a must-see, and I look forward to seeing how the trilogy wraps up.