There's a terrific action sequence in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" that involves a river, some barrels, and a lot of orcs and elves. It's visually coherent and exciting, it was shot smoothly, and it's just a pantload of fun. If the rest of the film were as energized and entertaining as this section, "Desolation of Smaug" would be exponentially better than "An Unexpected Journey."
Instead, it's merely somewhat better than last year's meandering dud -- a slight improvement on a movie that should have been pretty easy to improve upon. With the exposition out of the way in Peter Jackson's for-some-reason-a-trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's novel, this middle chapter has no excuse for being so inert.
Well, except that it's based on only one-third of a story. But that's more of an explanation than an excuse.
"Desolation of Smaug" begins with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) doing what he does best: giving an assignment to some little people, then leaving. (But not before he says ominous things like "He'll either help us ... or he'll kill us" and "We'll be safe for the night ... I hope.") Local hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and grave-faced dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) are still leading a delegation of dwarves toward a mountain where a dragon named Smaug is guarding a treasure that includes a jewel called the Arkenstone that they must acquire in order to yada yada the something something. But the journey is long and treacherous, and Bilbo has that troublesome ring in his pocket, which he occasionally uses to make himself invisible.
Bilbo and friends encounter a batch of elves along the way, including fan favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom), his father, King Thranduil (Lee Pace), and new lady elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). The latter is set up for potential romance with Legolas, but she is also sympathetic to one of the dwarves, Kili (Aidan Turner), who is injured by an orc's arrow. We also meet a human fellow named Bard (Luke Evans) who lives in the town next to the mountain and aids our heroes in their quest.
There is plenty of activity in the film, with much less sitting around than last time. We do not, for example, waste 40 minutes singing songs and washing dishes. Yet there's still precious little that actually happens. Bilbo and company run afoul of giant spiders in one tingly scene, face orcs now and then, and eventually have a lively experience with Smaug (voiced to plummy perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch). Some of this is thrilling enough, as far as it goes. But storywise, we're hardly any further along when the movie it ends than we were when it started.
Characterwise, we're even worse off. Who, exactly, are we supposed to be attached to? Bilbo may be the protagonist of the whole epic, but he's barely used in "Desolation of Smaug," and his character arc is stalled. Gandalf is largely M.I.A. Newly introduced characters like Tauriel (who is new to the film series and the Tolkien universe as a whole) are interesting for variety's sake but don't bring anything new to the table. The dwarves continue to be roughly interchangeable, as whatever individual personalities they had in the book have not yet been translated to film. (Maybe that's in part 3?)
Ultimately, that's the crucial difference between this trilogy (so far, anyway) and "Lord of the Rings." In "LOTR," the space between action sequences didn't feel like downtime because we enjoyed the company of the hobbits, dwarves, and elves we were journeying with. It helped that they often split up, too, giving us multiple storylines to follow. In "The Hobbit," they're all clustered together most of the time, the characters aren't particularly interesting, and the dynamics between them produce no sparks. We embarked on a very long road trip with entirely the wrong group of traveling companions.
SCORE: 6.0 / 10