The second installment in the cinematic adaptation of The Hobbit series written by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Desolation of Smaug has a lot of expectations to live up to. And it has, say critics.
Smaug, who is a dragon, played by Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch locks horns with Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman, who incidentally plays Watson in the series. Director Peter Jackson seems to be playing on their chemistry, and he has got it right.
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian is no Lord of the Rings fanatic. But, he is impressed by the Jackson rendition.
"This second Hobbit movie was for me not just a pleasure, but a revelation. For the first time, I "got" the JRR Tolkien/Peter Jackson experience. I tuned into the frequency. I tasted the fusion cuisine. I heard the eccentric but weirdly rousing choral harmonies. And this is despite – or more probably because of – never having been a Tolkien fan and being agnostic about the myth-making and, indeed, the prose quality. With the Hobbit series, the penny is properly dropping: it's not about Tolkien, it's Tolkien-plus-Jackson, of course. It's morphed into something new," writes a satisfied Bradshaw.
Betsy Sharkey of LA Times is all for Cumberbatch. "Peter Jackson's newest installment of the Tolkien trilogy is set afire by the scorching roar of a dragon. That would be Smaug, a wicked, wily creature voiced by a wicked-in-his-own-right Benedict Cumberbatch. The scaly villain slithers around insinuating that the dwarfs have double-crossing in mind," writes Sharkey.
"Fortunately for Smaug, 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," she adds.
Whether critics love the movie or not, they're conscious of Jackson's hand in moulding the story. As Manhola Dargis writes in NY Times, "Because when he (Peter Jackson) is good — as in the first Lord of the Rings and in scenes here and there in its sequels and in this movie — he is very, very good. But when he is bad he’s a crushingly straight, unoriginal director who seems largely interested in topping himself with bigger, louder, more frenetic action and who all too often hits his beats as predictably as someone doing hack work for Jerry Bruckheimer."
Ian Buckwalter can't quite divorce the film from the book. "The second installment, The Desolation of Smaug, makes it clear that the three-chapter treatment has little to do with making adequate room to fully adapt Tolkien's story — or even, as some have argued, to include material from the original trilogy's considerable appendices. The extra time, it becomes increasingly clear, is primarily about the considerable embellishments devised by Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens," notes Buckwalter in NPR.org.
But "that isn't necessarily a bad thing," he admits. "A little infidelity in the process of adaptation can make the material fresh for even the most fervent fans of a classic, and the skill with which this team employed strategic cuts, additions and composited characters in the original trilogy was part of what made Lord of the Rings work so well."
So how does Smaug match up to his predecessor?
"A year ago, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey got the job done, but it was too bright and busy and noisy, with creatures that kept popping up as if out of a jack-in-the-box. The Desolation of Smaug is a more grandly somber movie, and also a much better one, with forces of boldly intense and unified malevolence," writes Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly.
Brian Viner of Dailymail nods along. "The first Hobbit film was, frankly, not altogether worth the investment of time. This one is. Middle Earth purists will see where Jackson has stepped out of the pages of The Hobbit and into The Lord Of The Rings, but there is a pace and a cohesion that the first film lacked," he writes.
"But this time Jackson has also given us a smouldering elfin heroine, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), whose skill with a bow and arrow matches that of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games," adds an impressed Viner.