Last year, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" had film critics wagging their fingers over Peter Jackson and company's decision to stretch J.R.R. Tolkien's slim children's novel "The Hobbit" into a movie trilogy, one that got off to a plodding start. But for many critics, the second installment, "The Desolation of Smaug," has put the series back on course.
The Los Angeles Times' Betsy Sharkey writes, "In the wake of 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,' last year's dreary, dense, disappointing slough through Middle-earth, 'The Desolation of Smaug' comes as a relief. Peter Jackson's newest installment of the Tolkien trilogy is set afire by the scorching roar of a dragon." (That would be the eponymous Smaug, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch.)
While the visual effects are "fabulous," Sharkey says, "the storytelling trumps the technology. Jackson's latest go at Tolkien's treasured 'Hobbit' story gets closer to that rich alchemy of fantasy, adventure, imagination and emotion that made his 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy such a triumph."
The New York Times' Manohla Dargis says, "'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,' a soporific 170 minutes released in 2012, lived up to its subtitle principally by moving at a snail's pace. At 161 minutes the new one by contrast feels like a sprint." Dargis adds, "There are, once again, too many busy, uninterestingly staged battles that lean heavily on obvious, sometimes distracting digital sorcery. But there are also pacific, brooding interludes in which the actors — notably [Martin] Freeman [as Bilbo Baggins], an intensely appealing screen presence — remind you that there's more to Middle-earth than clamor and struggle."
Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal writes, "The news is greatly encouraging about the second installment of Peter Jackson's 'Hobbit' trilogy, but I'll keep it short .… Suffice it to say that Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins and Ian McKellen's Gandalf the Grey are back, along with the 13 dwarves led by Richard Armitage's Thorin Oakenshield, and that the latest lap of their journey is far more focused and much more exciting than the last one." Two welcome additions, Morgenstern says, are the female elf Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly, and Cumberbatch's Smaug.
Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune also says the sequel is "livelier and better than its predecessor. The first movie's harrumphing throat-clearing has given way to a swift, imposing adventure boasting several wing-ding action sequences .… It's exciting, improbable, funny in its derring-do and a reminder that Jackson, as a filmmaker, can do many things, including finding the precise way to send arrow after arrow through skull after skull, while tossing in a few beheadings, and yet somehow maintain a PG-13 rating. And the right spirit." [Subscription required]
The Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan agrees that "[t]he second part of Peter Jackson's 'The Hobbit' trilogy goes a long way — and at 2½ hours, I do mean long — toward righting the wrongs of the first movie, which was even longer." He continues: "Jackson's handsome new addition to the canon … is a fleet, fun redemption of the film franchise."
Not every critic is fond of "Smaug," however. The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle, for one, gives a scathing review: "Peter Jackson's 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' should never have been made and doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Jackson's 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy." It is, he says, "a 161-minute would-be epic, in which the strain to stretch and inflate is apparent in virtually every frame." LaSalle adds, "'The Desolation of Smaug' fails in almost every way, as a story, as an adventure, as a piece of art direction and as a visual spectacle."
Like it or not, the final film in the trilogy, "The Hobbit: There and Back Again," is scheduled to open Dec. 17, 2014.