'The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug' Review: Pacing Issues Dampen A Rousing Return To Middle Earth

The second of Peter Jackson's trilogy of films adapting The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug, both improves on the previous film, and regresses from some of its achievements. In 2012's An Unexpected Journey, Jackson stretched the story of The Hobbit to a breaking point. Sequences that were mere blips in the book became much longer, hurting the pacing immensely. At the start of this second film, Jackson picks up the pace considerably and, in just over an hour, our characters are at their final destination: The Lonely Mountain. Unfortunately, there's still an hour and a half to go (plus another movie) which means that briefly improved, upbeat pace comes to a screeching halt. Plus that rushed first hour glosses over some of the most famous scenes in J.R.R. Tolkien's book.

Besides the major pacing problems, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has lots of good things going for it, including more rousing action, great performances by new characters, and several beautiful new settings. But all of those don't save the film from being considerably divisive.

After a fascinating and revealing prologue, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug picks up right where An Unexpected Journey left off. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the Dwarves have the Lonely Mountain in sight, but the Orcs are still on their tail. To hide, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) suggests they go to the house of Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) a "skin-changer" who shifts forms between bear and man. It's a scene Tolkien fans have wanted to see forever and Jackson's visual effects are, as usual, second to none. But the scene is criminally short and serves very little purpose other than provide some exposition. It's a microcosm of what's to come.

Soon after, the group is captured by Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace). If you're read the book, you know the iconic escape that comes next. That scene, as imagined by Jackson, has been extended and expanded making it one of the best and most thrilling action scenes in his entire career. It's truly magical. Unfortunately, it happens mere minutes after the group is captured and any real drama or jeopardy is totally removed from the story.

This point in the film is where things begin to slow down. The Dwarves meet Bard (Luke Evans) and get to Lake Town, which is at the base of the Lonely Mountain. A quick glimpse at my watch revealed the film had only been on for 75 minutes at this point. There were still 90 or so to go.

Those are just two examples to bolster the point that Jackson tries to fix the biggest problem from the first film — the pacing, and the emphasis on this story versus the bigger picture connecting to previous films — but fails to do so. The scenes described above (and a few others that happen in that opening hour) are some of the most iconic in The Hobbit. Yet they aren't treated with the same care as the smallest scene in An Unexpected Journey or even some of the side stories in The Desolation of Smaug.

The film's final 90 minutes are considerably slower, but at least the film reaches its final setting quickly, allowing Jackson to build some much-needed tension. Here's when Bilbo finally meets the dragon, Smaug, who is a grand vision thanks to the effects team at WETA. Voiced, and with movement based on motion-captured acting by Benedict Cumberbatch, the character is by far the most engaging in the film. He's so menacing and powerful, and his interactions with Bilbo are appropriately dramatic and interesting. They do feel a bit drawn out but, because the character is so formidable, you're left wanting more.

Also sprinkled into this are the Elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). We know Legolas from the original trilogy, which is winked at often, while Tauriel is a wholly new character. Oddly, she serves more purpose than Legolas, but both feel like they're only there to up the ante for action and romance. They do succeed in those aims, but they're just more examples of ways Jackson has expanded The Hobbit with an eye towards his previous films.

Another more obvious example is the parallel story that occupies another third of the film. For the majority of The Desolation of Smaug, Gandalf is off on his own investigating the rising evil hinted at in An Unexpected Journey. This B-story is a direct link to Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, setting up several of the plot threads that will ensnare Bilbo's nephew, Frodo. These connections are admirable, and visually impressive, but a stark reminder that no matter how much ground is covered in this film, there's still another film on the way.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a mixed bag. It boasts awesome action, iconic scenes, and truly great performances by not only Freeman and the Dwarves, but Middle-Earth newcomers Pace, Evans and Cumberbatch. The action, drama, and scope all improve on the first film. Unfortunately, the horribly uneven pacing and dangling plot lines bring the film down considerably.

Nevertheless, even with all of these problems, the movie is still highly enjoyable. There's still reason to be curious and excited to see, in the final film, how Jackson will tie up all the loose ends and links to his Lord of the Rings movies. He does a fantastic job setting up that grand scheme, but only an okay job of making a cohesive movie.

/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10