Peter Jackson's first Hobbit trilogy installment, An Unexpected Journey, grossed over $1 billion worldwide, yet it received easily the most lukewarm critical reactions of his Middle-earth films to date. Speaking personally, I quite enjoyed the movie - as did some other members of the Screen Rant crew - but understandably, not everyone was so tickled by the leisure pace at which the story unfolds; that An Unexpected Journey feels a bit clunky at times is also understandable, since it was originally intended to be the first-half of a two-part cinematic experience (not the beginning chapter in a new trilogy), until part-way into post-production.
Regardless, the second Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug, seems to blend the charm and heart of An Unexpected Journey with twice as much in the way of exhilarating action and spectacular set pieces - plus the addition of the foulest of all nasty dragons ever put to screen (voiced and performed through motion-capture with delicious cunning by fan-favorite Benedict Cumberbatch) - judging by trailer footage and clips from the film, anyway.
Does the first wave of reviews for The Desolation of Smaug - which have hit the 'Net since the embargo lifted - confirm this as true? Well, read the SPOILER-FREE excerpts and see for yourself (click on the links for the full reviews):
If “An Unexpected Journey” felt like nearly three hours’ worth of throat clearing and beard stroking, the saga gets fully under way at last in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"... Actually shorter than the first film by nine minutes, this robust, action-packed adventure benefits from a headier sense of forward momentum and a steady stream of 3D-enhanced thrills — culminating in a lengthy confrontation with a fire-breathing, scenery-chewing dragon..."
After exhibiting an almost craven fidelity to his source material the first time out, Jackson gets the drama in gear here from the outset with a sense of storytelling that possesses palpable energy and purpose. [For] the most part he moves the episodic tale along with reasonable speed for a leviathan while serving up enough fights, close shaves and action-filled melodrama for an old-fashioned movie serial or a modern video game.
The Desolation of Smaug is a cheerfully entertaining and exhilarating adventure tale, a supercharged Saturday morning picture: it's mysterious and strange and yet Jackson also effortlessly conjures up that genial quality that distinguishes The Hobbit from the more solemn Rings stories. The absurdity is winning: you're laughing with, not laughing at.
In short: get strapped in, because as far as plot developments and action are concerned, there won't be anything as slow and steady as twenty minutes of raucous dwarves eating - or a sequence where Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) magically resuscitates a hedgehog - in Jackson's latest romp around Middle-earth.
The Desolation of Smaug boasts the same technical qualities and alternative viewing options - including 3D and/or high-frame rate projection - but, thus far, most critics seem to agree that these elements have been improved and refined, when compared to An Unexpected Journey. Futhermore, the percentage of CGI components versus practical sets might be closer to what many people would prefer, as we've seen evidence - in the form of behind the scenes footage - that shows a good chunk of the second Hobbit film's visuals weren't created in post-production (for example: this promotional video showing the set used for the home of Beorn, the giant shape-shifting man).
Indeed, on the whole, the heightened filmmaking craft and storytelling technique in The Desolation of Smaug has gotten select critics more than a little enthused, as evident in this five-star review from Empire Magazine:
While An Unexpected Journey had plenty of bucolic charm, it did, for a Middle-earth film, feel oddly inconsequential. The Desolation Of Smaug remedies that. Moody, urgent and, for want of a better word, Ringsier, it’s a much more satisfying film... Verdict: Middle-earth's got its mojo back. A huge improvement on the previous instalment, this takes our adventurers into uncharted territory and delivers spectacle by the ton. And in case you were wondering, yes, someone manages to say the title as dialogue.
Similarly, The Desolation of Smaug has claimed the #10 spot on Time Entertainment's 'Top 10 Movies of 2013' list:
Who could guess, after the meandering first feature in a seemingly unnecessary eight-hour trilogy of films based on a novel of less than 300 pages, that Peter Jackson had such a vigorous and thrilling middle episode in store?... Each complex encounter, especially a flume-ride escape of the dwarves, boasts a teeming ingenuity of action and character... In all, this is a splendid achievement, close to the grandeur of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.
However, although nobody is denying that The Desolation of Smaug is an adrenaline-fueled blast of fantasy fun, it would be a lie to claim that everybody is still onboard with the philosophy that Jackson and his collaborators have embraced, when it comes to how they've adapted J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit source material for the big screen. Indeed, many of the common complaints levied on Jackson's previous Middle-earth ventures - they're too bloated, too extravagant, too spectacle-oriented - have reared their heads once more here. (Not exactly a surprise, though, is it?)
Case in point: here's what the naysayers have to offer, at this stage:
To wit: the Peter Jackson-directed ‘Hobbit’ sequel might be the more vigorous, action-packed, darker and more (superficially) engaging version of the series thus far, but that doesn’t actually mean it’s a keeper of any sort... The truth is, audiences are going to approve of this sequel. It’s entertaining, it’s engaging and it’s got thrills, but all at the expense and to the detriment of what stories, narrative and filmmaking should be about.
There comes a time when we must stop kidding ourselves. These ‘Hobbit‘ films – with ‘The Desolation of Smaug‘ representing the shank of the trilogy – are not real movies. These are exploitation films for Tolkien nuts, for enthusiasts of the original ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies and for audiences so hungry for high fantasy they’ll gobble up whatever is served to them and ask for seconds.
In all fairness, though, these negative reviews for The Desolation of Smaug aren't exactly that damning; the general implication is that if you've been okay with Jackson's general Middle-earth filmmaking principles in the past, then you probably won't end up having any significant gripes with the second Hobbit installment. On the contrary, it should leave you all the more pumped to see the (you know what's coming) epic conclusion to the trilogy, with The Hobbit: There and Back Again.
Look for Screen Rant's official review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, when the films opens in theaters on December 13th, 2013.
Source: See the above links