It is difficult to examine this film without comparing it to its direct predecessor. Unfortunately, it is not a comparison that does the film any favors. The Desolation of Smaug doesn’t quite have the same energy as An Unexpected Journey. That really isn’t a flaw, it’s not supposed to have that energy. That unexpected journey is nearing its end and the party of dwarves and hobbit and sometimes wizard is tired. That makes this movie somewhat less enjoyable than the first, especially since the existence of the third film keeps it from having any conclusions either. Still, there are moments that have just as much kinetic fun as any film and the gravitas that the first one failed so spectacularly with works better here.
It is more Hobbit. The first half hour or so could have easily been part of the previous film with no one noticing. I am going to assume people have read the book and know the general flow of the story, so if not beware spoilers. It starts with encounters with the bear-man Beorn, then they get lost in the Mirkwood, captured by giant spiders and once they get free are captured by elves. It is the same sort of roller coaster ride feeling that made the first film so enjoyable and it peaks with the wonderful, funny escape via barrel. That is definitely the high point of the movie. It is kinetic and fun; it just brings a smile to the viewer’s face. The dwarves are stuck, for the most part, in their barrels while the Elves try to thwart their escape. At the same time, a pack of Orcs show up trying to kill the dwarves. So the dwarves float in the barrels while the Orcs and Elves fight each other to get them. It is cartoonish in the best way. After that things take a turn for the somber, though the movie never loses its comedic bent.
The additions and changes in this one seem more fundamental than in the first movie. There was some rearranging and plenty of additions in An Unexpected Journey, but it was mostly making background stuff explicit and giving the movie an antagonist that the first half of the book lacked. In The Desolation of Smaug, the changes are greater. Yes, the Hobbit never let the read know exactly what Gandalf was up to, only that he had to deal with a Necromancer. This film shows us that. Not a problem, especially since they made the decision to split this into three movies. Then there is the appearance of Legolas. Logical, since the dwarves go through his home, but his role is greatly expanded from anything that was in the books. Then there is Tauriel, a laudable attempt to balance the almost wholly male cast before this. Honestly, she fits right in. None of the changes in and of themselves are bad, but added up the changes make it feel like the film was getting too far away from the book at times.
The film greatest failure and its greatest triumph is the dragon, Smaug. Bilbo’s encounter with the dragon had the opportunity to mirror his encounter with Gollum from the first movie. Again he is separated from the dwarves and must get by on his own. His whole encounter with the dragon is wonderful. Then the dwarves get involved. It is the same problem that the first movie had, that at the end the dwarves had nothing to do, but the extended escape sequence not only loses the point of having Bilbo at all, but also lack the energy that made the barrel ride scene of goblintown s enjoyable. It feels flat and padded and greatly lessens the threat that Smaug supposedly is. If he is so dangerous, how do a double handful of dwarves evade him so casually? It really is a letdown.
I haven’t lost my faith in Peter Jackson. I eagerly await the third and final film. The dreary nature of the second half of this movie makes it hard to come out with as good a feeling as the first film. It does a great job of hammering home how selfish the dwarves quest is at its heart. The first film paints it as a noble attempt to reclaim their homeland, this one makes it clear that there are other considerations. The Desolation of Smaug is a film with significant hills and valleys and unfortunately, it ends at its lowest point.