“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, the similarly massive but far more purposeful second chapter in Peter Jackson’s latest Tolkien enterprise,” begins Variety‘s Justin Chang. “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—even as our heroes’ quest splits into three strands that are left dangling in classic middle-film fashion.”
The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw notes that “this second episode commences with a narrative whipcrack—a quick flashback to Gandalf [Ian McKellen] and Thorin [Richard Armitage] tensely discussing their great plan in the snug bar of the Prancing Pony—and then we’re off, at a tremendous gallop. 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.” Oh, and “the high-frame-rate projection for this film somehow looks richer and denser than it did the last time around. Maybe I’m just getting used to it.”
“Mostly,” adds Time Out‘s Keith Uhlich, “the movie sticks to the company of Thorin, his fellow dwarves and the resourceful hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman)—still carrying the invisibility-cloaking Ring of Power in his pocket—as they continue on their quest to reclaim the kingdom of Erebor from the vicious dragon Smaug (a motion-captured Benedict Cumberbatch). The Desolation of Smaug shows Peter Jackson in an especially overabundant mood, orchestrating all manner of chaos like a master conductor unleashing his inner fanboy. There’s a shape-shifting bear, the massive spiders of Mirkwood and an army of orcs. Returning archer elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his fellow warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, auto-tuned into ethereality) provide multiple, gory decapitations. There’s even an extended set-piece involving some barrels and a roaring river that’s so giddily, gloriously executed that you forget it could all just be an elaborate prototype for a yet-to-be-built theme-park-ride.”
The Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin is not won over: “There is, in short, an awful lot of Desolation to wade through before we arrive, weary and panting, on Smaug’s rocky porch…. The tone is one hundred percent Jackson—a kind of thundering gloominess, cut with the occasional glint of Discworld mischief. Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, have decapitated bodies twitching on the ground, and a captured dwarf leering at a female elf: ‘Aren’t you going to search me? I could have anything down my trousers.’ Maybe this really is what a lot of people want to see from a film version of The Hobbit, but let’s at least accept that Tolkien would probably not have been among them.”
Time‘s Richard Corliss has put this Hobbit on the tail end of his “Top 10 Best Movies” of 2013 list: “This time, Andy Serkis has not lent his presence to Gollum, but his work as second-unit director is spectacular…. A bonus: the budding romance of the warrior Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the dwarf hunk Kili (Aidan Turner). In all, this is a splendid achievement, close to the grandeur of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.”
“[A]s in the Lord of the Rings films, not to mention King Kong, [Jackson] has a hard time knowing when enough is enough,” writes the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy, “even as the three-hour goalpost looms dead ahead. But 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.”
“There comes a time when we must stop kidding ourselves,” interrupts Jordan Hoffman at ScreenCrush. “These Hobbit films… are not real movies.” And this one “doesn’t cohere—there’s no forward momentum, no character development, no story happening. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a fibber.”
Desolation “might be the more vigorous, action-packed, darker and more (superficially) engaging version of the series thus far,” grants Rodrigo Perez at the Playlist, “but that doesn’t actually mean it’s a keeper of any sort. In fact, rather than calling it a sequel, The Desolation of Smaug is better served described as an episode. And the episodic, middle chapter-itis that is currently hurting the modern-day tentpole sequel is fully evinced.”
Screen‘s Mark Adams disagrees: “Rather than suffering from that ‘middle film in a trilogy’ syndrome, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a freewheeling and exciting second film that moves at a breathless pace offering up entertainment and excitement in equal measure and ends on a dramatic high that will have fantasy fans desperate for more.”
And at HitFix, Drew McWeeney argues that a comparison of the first two installments offers “a pretty great practical lesson in how these kinds of films work.”
John Plunkett profiles Martin Freeman for the Guardian.
Updates, 12/8: “That these films even carry the title ‘The Hobbit’ is something of a joke,” argues R. Kurt Osenlund in Slant, “as Bilbo, Tolkien’s first beloved halfling, and the burglar who finds the One Ring that will determine the fate of this whole blessed universe, has been reduced to a fuzzy-footed tool—a faux protagonist who’s only called upon when other characters are in a tight spot. This wasn’t so much a problem in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which at least began by patiently grounding Bilbo and showing his roots in the verdant Shire, while confidently asserting that this new series would primarily serve as an expansion of Middle-Earth’s depiction on screen. And it wouldn’t be so troublesome in the second installment either if the spotlight-hogging characters and events were drawn with the richness so expected of this saga.”
At Twitch, Jason Gorber suggests that “if you don’t like The Desolation of Smaug, if you’re honest you probably didn’t like the Lord of the Rings films very much, either. For even more so than the previous outing, this chapter feels very much like a (welcome) expansion on the world that the original trilogy helped create. The Tolkienian landscape is a rich one with many places to explore, and I for one refuse to begrudge these extraordinary filmmakers taking more of my time to delve into the nooks and crannies of this rich narrative.”
Josh Rottenberg talks with Jackson for Entertainment Weekly.
Updates, 12/28: “At once familiar and otherworldly,” writes Michael Nordine in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “this is an environment in which riddles, talismans, and mystical keys take on life-or-death importance; where graceful, statuesque elves tussle with stocky, pugnacious dwarves; and where notions of destiny and forbearance weigh heavily on several major characters. At this point it may go without saying that the battles these competing elements result in are quite awe-inspiring on a sensory level. More remarkable is Jackson and his co-writers’ ability to make even the most outlandish creatures’ struggles feel distinctly human and further distinguish these films from their genre ilk. The once-marginalized elements of high fantasy are now the stuff of human drama, which is an easy feat to take for granted now but bears repeating nonetheless.”
More from Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 3/5), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 4/5), Robbie Collin (Telegraph, 2/5), Richard Corliss (Time), Manohla Dargis (New York Times), Adam Lee Davies (Little White Lies), A.A. Dowd (AV Club, B-), Bilge Ebiri (Vulture), Ryan Gilbey (New Statesman), Jim Holden (Alternate Takes), Robert Horton (Seattle Weekly), Geoffrey Macnab (Independent, 4/5), Wesley Morris (Grantland), Max Nelson (Film Comment), Andrew O’Hehir (Salon), Sheila O’Malley (RogerEbert.com, 3.5/4), Christopher Orr (Atlantic), Cleaver Patterson (Film International), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Antonia Quirke (Financial Times, 2/5), Tasha Robinson (Dissolve, 3/5), Eric D. Snider (Film.com, 6/10), and Kelly Vance (East Bay Express).