I was not a fan of the first Hobbit film. It struck me as the worst intersection of studio monetary cynicism and directorial hubris. Overblown enough as a two-film adaptation of a 300 page children's novel, the concept of splitting it into three installments felt galling. And in practice, it was. It did have one redeeming scene; the "Riddles in the Dark" chapter was adapted marvelously well. The rest of it, though, was an awfully structured decompressed mess full of a weird combination of silliness and almost hilariously overwrought portentous doom-mongering, bolstered by wasted characters and action scenes that made it seem like Jackson was using the exact same technology from ten years ago, even though the rest of the CG world seemed to move forward. We're a year out from that first film, meaning it's time to return to Middle Earth for the fifth time (just writing that makes me feel exhausted) with The Desolation of Smaug.
Picking up the action after a quick flashback that reveals the depth of Gandalf's involvement in bringing Bilbo and the dwarfs together for their quest to take back the Lonely Mountain from the dragon tyrant Smaug. The band of 13 dwarfs, a wizard and a hobbit continue to elude the orcish hordes from the end of the first film as they make their way toward the Mirkwood, representing the quickest way to the mountain of Erebor. It does not take very long for the pitfalls of the first feature to jump right back to the forefront, as Gandalf almost immediately runs off in some other direction to go on some vague question to link this trilogy to The Lord of the Rings by talking about Sauron a bunch and spying on orcs and goblins. The Mirkwood is home of the wood-elves, and suddenly Orlando Bloom comes dashing out of the trees during a battle with some spiders, followed closely by Evangeline Lilly playing the role of an entirely new elf character created for the film. The dwarfs must escape from their captors in order to continue their epic quest.
The difficulty with the story decisions that are made for these Hobbit films lies in how the general production quality, the visuals, the sets and much of the acting deserve better than the muddled mess we've gotten out of nearly six hours of movie. Martin Freeman is, by all accounts, a wonderful Bilbo Baggins. He has the perfect temperament, a great and expressive face with strong comic timing. But even though he plays the hobbit after which the films are named, he often feels like window dressing in the Thorin Oakenshield show. Richard Armitage is similarly quite good in his role, but you get the feeling that he's just this story's Aragorn, and Jackson focuses on him as the lead so much because everybody loved Aragorn in the first trilogy, so the spotlight should be on this series' version of the Aragorn character type. The product of this tendency is that Bilbo feels underdeveloped as a main character, which isn't a good thing to hang your films on when it comes to the point that Bilbo has to be the hero of the story.
The Bilbo issue is present in both films (remarkable, considering that we spend an hour in the Shire in film one), but it's not the biggest story problem of The Desolation of Smaug. As a part of the creative team's continuing quest to shoehorn in as many B and C plots as possible, a thoroughly unnecessary and juvenile romantic triangle is added to the middle of the film, involving the two elves (Bloom and Lilly) and Kili (Aidan Turner), the one dwarf who doesn't look as dwarfy as his companions. Not only is this subplot entirely superfluous, it is also executed terribly, relying on sideways glances, glares and misunderstandings without speech, the sort of social interactions of junior high school hallways. The romance is a pace-killer and seems to have the worst timing possible, always cutting off any forward momentum at its knees whenever the film shows any signs of getting going.
The film is further hampered (somewhat surprisingly) but its technology; there's a sequence in the middle of the film involving the team floating down a river in barrels escaping from both elves and goblins that has some shockingly bad and noticeable composition problems in the effects work. This is most apparent whenever actors are replaced by CG doubles (something that was done often back in the early 2000's in the first trilogy when it was more cutting-edge) instead of stunt doubles, presumably because you can still keep the camera at a close or medium distance without having to hide the stunt double's face. It looks horrible, and snaps suspension of disbelief in half. What's worse, the tactic is often used in the most banal situations, such as a character riding a horse or Legolas jumping across a small river, both of which are easily shots that could have been done with actual practical effects. This gives the film a similar feel as, say, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, which never felt grounded in any sort of tangible reality. It's not a good thing.
There are moments of brilliance, though. Lee Pace plays the role of Thranduil (the leader of the wood-elves) with a sort of arched manic glee that evokes the work John Noble did in The Return of the King. And once Bilbo reaches the lair of the dragon, the scenes he has with Smaug (voiced by Freeman's pal-in-Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch) are fantastic, better even than Riddles in the Dark. It's a duel of words instead of swords, and is vibrant, vital and finally feels like it has the energy of the first trilogy again (when, of course, Jackson isn't cutting away to some other boring subplot, which happens constantly). Cumberbatch has pitch perfect control of his voice, playing Smaug as the conceited overly confident ruler it should be. Freeman remains great in these scenes, with his sardonic and borderline cloying deference to this massive threat that he casually mixes with pure fear. For a time, it felt like these scenes might be reason enough to actually recommend this installment on their merits alone, but then the swords come out and we're treated to a drawn out run of the mill chase sequence (with even more fake CGI body doubles) that sucks all the joy and fun right off the screen back into despair.
It will be tough to convince me to see There and Back Again. These films are pure, devoted fan service, feeling aggressively like checklists with no internal logic, natural flow, style or elan. The fact that The Desolation of Smaug is a nominally better film than An Unexpected Journey, but remains pretty terrible in its own right creates a more frustrating experience, as Jackson will give us flashes of brilliance (or, at least, warm light-iness) before cutting to the silly love triangle or Radaghast's bunny chariot or a hundred other moments that aren't Bilbo's quest, which is of course the thing we're actually supposed to care about. There have been as many minutes in these two films than there are pages in The Hobbit, and there's still another 2+ hour installment to come. God help us all.