The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013): 7/10
Considerably more entertaining and better paced than the first, but only slightly less frustrating.
Let's get the good out of the way first: The Desolation of Smaug is fine popcorn entertainment. Jackson and Co. have worked out how to better integrate the non-Hobbit material into the Hobbit material this time around, and what licenses they take with the material seem to at least be part of some wholly complete plan--the first film seemed too much like two films crammed inelegantly into one, a severe problem that this installment largely manages to avoid. There are also more sequences of pure visual wonderment this time around, and Bilbo's meeting with Smaug is this film's equivalent of the fantastic 'riddles in the dark' scene from the previous film. Jackson is at his best when he works more literally with sequences as Tolkien wrote them, something that held true in The Lord of the Rings, and which still holds true here. And Smaug and Bilbo's conversation in the novel is one of fantasy literature's most 'iconic' scenes--Jackson and his actors give it the treatment it deserves.
Now, onto the bad. Or at least the annoying.
∙ At one point, Thorin uses a wheelbarrow as a makeshift boat to navigate a channel of ugly CGI molten gold. UGH.
∙ Romance is forced into the film via the introduction of an original character, the she-elf Tauriel, who may as well be some fanfic Mary Sue OC. She, of course, falls in love with the hottest dwarf, and he with her.
∙ There are several visual and plot-point callbacks to the Lord of the Rings--most of which approach the point of self-parody.
∙ Despite the film being called 'The Hobbit,' Martin Freeman as Bilbo is just barely a character. He does his part to move the plot forward and looks pained whenever he fingers the Ring (yes Jackson, we know about the true nature of the Ring--you don't have to constantly remind us about it), but otherwise doesn't get to do much until his confrontation with Smaug near the end of the film.
∙ Lee Pace as Thranduil may be easy on the eyes (does anyone doubt that he is much prettier than Orlando Bloom?), but he's also a source of never-ending ham, on top of which he's Two-Face, or something?
∙ While I don't recall having to sit through any shakey-cam (thank god), Jackson doesn't seem to know what to do with his camera if he isn't swirling it around his action set pieces. While this probably looked fine on higher FPS screenings, if you prefer your films at traditional FPS and in 2-D, be ready for lots of blurry action-sequences that emphasize how fake the CGI looks.
∙ And speaking of that fake CGI, surely I can't be the only one who misses the Orcs being played by actual people in makeup? Or who misses, you know, stunts? If I wanted to watch cartoon action, I'd go watch a damn cartoon. As inventive as they might be, the action sequences here lack all the impact and *danger* of the better action sequences from The Lord of the Rings, and, in typical Jackson form, they *never end.*
∙ While it's better paced and situated than it was in the first film, there is still a ton of filler here. Legolas, Tauriel, and Gandalf's adventures in southern Mirkwood aren't even the worst offenders--indeed, what Jackson does with these three characters is considerably better than what he does elsewhere--including with book material. (Why the hell was Beorn even in this movie? And did we honestly need another Wormtongue character? Did we need that waste of a prologue? Did the barrel scene have to go on as long as it did? Were the Mirkwood spiders at all necessary?)
∙ Most unforgivable is the treatment of Smaug. Sure, his 10-15 minutes of back-and-forth with Bilbo is every bit as great as it was in the book, and his reveal is fantastic. But then we get thirty minutes of CGI cat-and-mouse between the dwarves and Smaug in the depths of the mountain, and by cat-and-mouse, I literally mean Tom and Jerry. By the end of it, Smaug has been thoroughly humiliated, has been proven to have the intellect of the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, and ultimately comes across as not much of a threat at all. Indeed, he seems to be utterly ineffectual as a villain (outside of his near invincibility, of course)--here's hoping he manages to off a few dwarves, assorted innocent townfolk, and maybe Tauriel in the next installment. He's got a reputation to maintain, after all.
I could probably go on for a while longer, but I'll cut myself short here. You get the idea. Entertaining and breathlessly propulsive it may be, but it's only slightly less-flawed than its predecessor, and further evidence that The Lord of the Rings were all flukes, not entirely unlike the original Star Wars trilogy. Ah, well. All the more reason to cherish them.
Edited by metalsonata - 12/15/13 at 9:44am