My review of The Desolation of Smaug will necessarily be spoiler-y. To protect those who have not seen the movie yet, I will warn of the worst spoilers with bold text and put those sections in white text so you have to swipe to read (note this may not work in RSS. Hell, it may not work in HTML. One of my goals in life is learn the minimum amount of hypertext I have to).
The Hobbit was originally going to be two motion pictures and was then expanded to three. Watching Smaug it becomes obvious that this is where most of the padding was done. If you were to edit the three movies down to two, you’d probably lose about 70% of his picture. The problem is not so much that Peter Jackson adds a lot of new stuff; it’s that the stuff that is there is dragged out. A quick barrel ride down the river turns into a long fight sequence. Instead of just arriving at Lake Town, they are smuggled in. Instead of a few brief encounters with Smaug, there is a long drawn-out battle through the depths of Erebor. The first movie stops at a natural half-way point: after the company get through the Misty Mountains. The second just … stops.
Ironically, I don’t actually have that big a problem with the new and original stuff Jackson has added. Tauriel is a nice addition and, well, Legolas was around back then so we knew he’d be back. The sequences at Dol Goldur work pretty well and the sequence in which Gandalf investigates the tombs of the Nine might be one of the best parts of the movie.
Spoilers: One of the big changes Jackson makes is to the dwarves’ plan. In the movie, they want Bilbo to steal the Arkenstone so that Thorin can rally the dwarves against Smaug. Purist will be outraged but … that actually makes more sense than the book. In the book, it’s not really clear what Gandalf’s plan was or why Bilbo was necessary. As Bilbo himself says: did the Dwarves expect him to leave the mountain with the entire hoard of Thror on his back? Of course, part of the reason is that the plot — as far as the dragon goes — is basically ripped straight out of the third part of Beowulf (slave steals cup from dragon; dragon goes nuts; warrior kills dragon).
In short, my problem is not with the additions Jackson had made to fit the story into the larger epic. My problem is with the way he had done it. My problem is the way he has larded existing scenes to slow the story down in favor of ever more action and CGI, particularly in the river sequence, the unnecessary splitting of the dwarves so that we can a long drawn-out action sequence in Lake Town and the final battle with Smaug. He does this at the expense of scenes of true wonder, such as the journey through Mirkwood and the reveal of Erebor and Smaug.
Spoilers: The fight with Smaug is the worst case of action bloat. It’s magnificently rendered and Smaug is an amazing creation. But … it makes no sense. Can anyone tell me what Thorin’s plan was? How does a dragon, who easily killed thousands, managed to not even wound any of the ten dwarves in the mountain? And why does it end? In the book, Smaug thinks he has killed the thief and attacks Lake Town to punish them for helping the dwarves. In the movie, he just goes to Lake Town. Is he pissed off because of the molten gold? Would he not continue fighting until the dwarves were dead then attack Lake Town? And the fight itself is a great illustration of action movie bloat: the sequence is built around a series of kick-ass moments — water pouring onto Smaug, Thorin standing on the gold statue — that have to be linked be a series of improbable events.
There is a lot that I like about the movie. As mentioned above, Smaug fulfills all possible expectations. He is magnificently rendered, wonderfully voiced by Cumberpatch and thoroughly menacing. He doesn’t quite come off as egotistical and softened by the years as he does in the book. The new material mostly works, although it does often feel like padding. I liked the deeper look into the politics of Lake Town. I really liked the Mirkwood sequence, although it was far too short. I loved the little fan touches like the enormous bees in Beorn’s house.
In short, as I said about the first movie, this is good, sometimes it is great. If it were about 30 minutes shorter, it would have been amazing.
The critics all love Hobbit 2 better than Hobbit 1, so I’m in the minority on this (although Berardinelli agrees with me). Of course, the critics also liked Star Trek: Into Darkness which I have problems with. So maybe I’m out on a limb here. Maybe I’m full of shit. But I don’t think so. I think, in the fullness of time, people will see what I see in the modern movie franchises: that they are bloated, that the plots often make no sense, that they are built around action sequences that make no damned sense and that ultimately they will fail to last the way Star Wars or Indiana Jones have or Lord of the Rings will.