The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug had every reason on Earth to be clearly and significantly better than The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but it's much closer to being a dead heat. This ends up being far, far more depressing than An Unexpected Journey was in isolation, for there was still hope after that movie. Now there is not, for the dragon bits have been mostly used up with this film, and we've all known all along that the dragon bits would be the best part of the trilogy or tetralogy or septet or however many films Peter Jackson and company figured they could extract from a slender, brightly-paced children's book.

What isn't the case, to a shocking degree, is that The Desolation of Smaug is variably weak and strong in the same general ways that A Long-Protracted Journey was. For two films made by the same crew and as part of the same production schedule, they are wildly different. They have, in fact, almost precisely opposite flaws: where the last film inched by with a slavish devotion to J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 novel that crushed any sense of imagination or pacing, The Desolation of Smaug runs screaming from one plot point to the next, barely stopping to let anything sit and simmer and become rich and good. It invents huge swaths of totally new material, leaving even the plot points that Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens kept intact from the book feeling totally different because the context is so different; and where An Unendurable Journey needed, desperately, to break free a bit from the shackles of the book, The Desolation of Smaug is absolutely at its best when it's hewing closest to Tolkien and vividly, even objectively, at its worst when it is furthest away.

For also unlike its predecessor, it's spectacularly uneven. The opening 30 minutes and much of the last 30 are all pretty fantastic, far better than anything in the first movie save for its wonderful Gollum scene; but the middle of the film is a godawful wreck, as is the wildly inconsequential, jammed-in action setpiece that closes the thing. Moreover, the whole thing suffers, badly from a strange decision to refocus attention from the hobbit of the title to literally any other possible source: Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins is still very much the best performance in the film, and at his best moments still reaches the highest heights that any actor in any of Jackson's five (so far) Middle Earth epics have reached, but there are literally 20 minute chunks of the film where he barely even appears in the background of shots, and if someone were to tell me that he has less than 30 lines in the entire 160-minute feature, I wouldn't doubt them for a moment. That leaves us with no protagonist, but just a collection of ensemble-driven vignettes, and since The Hobbit across two films has only really bothered to establish four characters, most of those vignettes hang around people we have no reason to care about.

The plot, anyway, opens with a prologue that establishes Gandalf the wizard's (Ian McKellen) secret reason for wishing the exiled dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) should retrieve his kingdom at Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, from the dragon Smaug (voiced and mo-capped by Benedict Cumberbatch), and this leads into Gandalf's very own B-plot, in which he leaves Thorin's band of 13 dwarves and one hobbit to go hunting in the ruins of Dol Guldur, where a malevolent being naming itself the Necromancer (Cumberbatch also) is working to build an army to conquer Middle Earth. Meanwhile, that same band, after a dodgy, ill-expressed layover with a were-bear named Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), enters the foreboding forest of Mirkwood, hoping to arrive at Erebor more quickly than a circuitous route could provide, eventually falling afoul of the insular wood elves led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace) who live in the last relatively clean part of the woods. One thrilling escape later, the dwarf band arrives at the town Esgaroth, built on a lake at the foot of Erebor, where a local named Bard (Luke Evans) helps them to hide from the vain, tyrannical Burgomaster (Stephen Fry). Eventually, once Thorin's goal comes out, the people of Esgaroth are thrilled to put their lot in with the dwarves, convinced that this is the arrival of a prophesied king who will defeat the evil Smaug and bring peace and prosperity back to their village. Thus does the party, slightly reduced from sickness, journey all the way to the Lonely Mountain, where Bilbo is obliged to go deep into the depths of the former dwarf empire and parlay directly with the great dragon, whose amusement at the mewling size of this burglar is the only thing that keeps him from eating the hobbit outright.

That, hectically-expressed, is the whole plot of Peter Jackson's The Desolation of Smaug, which is not exactly the same as the plot of the middle third of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, but the point is the largely the same in either case: was there a need for a love triangle between an elf woman, an elf man, and a dwarf? Absolutely fucking not, and yet that is something present in the film regardless, and while it takes up only a little bit of screentime - 15 or 20 minutes all told, about the same length as any other individual plot in this overstuffed, jaggedly-paced, slurry - it is a deadly dull stretch that exemplifies the weirdest thing about this movie. Allegedly, the reason there are three Hobbits, instead of a nice sane two (we'll agree that one was just too damn much to hope for), was because of the amount of material to fit into it. Fine and dandy, but then why does The Desolation of Smaug consist to such a degree of material either changed to the point of being unrecognisable (the Beorn scene), augmented far beyond what Tolkien ever needed to get the same plot across (the political thriller that unfolds in Esgaroth), or straight-up invented? I get the need for even a single female character, and thus Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly); I get that it makes narrative sense for Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the character from The Lord of the Rings beloved by virtually nobody including the book's author, to show up; I don't get at all that the way to make this happen was by resorting to such a lazy, sexist notion as the girl who really loves this one guy - the designated "sexy dwarf", Kili (Aidan Turner) - while the other guy who loves her just rubs her the wrong way. Particularly in the overwhelmingly sexless universe Tolkien created.

Anyway, the film is insanely full of such pointless inventions that I would say distract from the plot, except that the secret is that The Desolation of Smaug lacks a plot: the book was already largely episodic, but An Unexpected Journey sidestepped this by giving itself an overriding villain and a character arc for both Bilbo and Thorin that was, unfortunately, largely resolved by the end. The Desolation of Smaug practically brags about how little flow there is between events, and the only reason it has any shape at all is because we know that this is a trilogy, and getting to the dragon's lair is a major point in that trilogy. But there is absolutely nothing that resembles a self-contained narrative (I suspect, with horror, that the Tauriel-Kili story was meant to provide that spine), and the film ends on an outright cliffhanger with nothing resolved. It should be pointed out that in the book, this same point is actually more of a narrative pause that makes sense, since Tolkien didn't throw in a spurious action scene that actually makes the film less coherent, and leaves Smaug's final actions in the film not just unmotivated, but completely irrational (indeed, the whole action sequence suggests that this ancient, ingenious monster is a big dumb animal who can be buffaloed as easily as the antagonist in a Bugs Bunny cartoon).

The film lives and dies, then, on the strength of its individual sequences, and these live and die almost entirely based on how closely they drift towards outright horror. For horror was the genre in which Jackson first made his name, and it is still the genre that he does best (in all three Lord of the Rings films, but especially The Return of the King, as well as in King Kong, the most vitally-directed sequences are the most horrific), and two of the three most successful sequences in The Desolation of Smaug are among the most explicitly horror-like scenes he's directed since the 1990s. One of these is the trek through Mirkwood, where outstandingly spooky production design and perfectly-chosen camera angles to create maximum disorientation and fear combine to make one of the best haunted woods I've ever seen in a movie (and the culminating fight against giant spiders is the film's best setpiece, anchored in mood and character rather than CGI choreography); the other is Gandalf's hunt through a haunted place called the High Fells, the one time in either Hobbit film that feels like it reaches the same terrible grandeur of the more epic moments in The Fellowship of the Ring, and I am here primarily thinking of the mines of Moria.

The third great sequence is the chat between Bilbo and Smaug (making this twice in two films that the highlight is a conversation between Freeman and a CGI effect), which also happens to be the scene most identical to Tolkien's book. This is in part because of two great performances, in part because of the cat-and-mouse thriller choreography, and in huge part because Smaug is such a fantastic visual effect: easily the best-looking movie dragon that I can think of, both in design and execution. It comes at exactly the right moment to redeem a flagging movie and almost leave it on a high note (that climactic chase scene is a movie-killer), and that would be the most irritating thing of all: no matter how much The Desolation of Smaug gets wrong, its successes are terrific. The effects are good if not great (better across the board than An Unexpected Journey, though the presence of CG, rather than practical orcs is still a problem), Howard Shore's increasingly derivative score gets the pulse quickening, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie once again makes New Zealand look so beautiful that it's sickening. We cannot write The Desolation of Smaug off as quickly as its predecessor, this is all to say. But for the exact same reasons, we can be even more frustrated by how much of it simply doesn't work at the levels of plot, character, or imaginative filmmaking.

Reviews in this series
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Jackson, 2001)
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Jackson, 2002)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Jackson, 2003)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Jackson, 2012)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Jackson, 2013)
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Jackson, 2014)