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While this writer is a fan and staunch defender of last year's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," he'll admit that the first installment in Peter Jackson's second Middle-earth trilogy could've had a more streamlined narrative and livelier pace. Although it had the unfortunate task of being the first Tolkien adaptation directly following the excellent "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2003) and was definitely unfairly (though inevitably) compared to its immediate predecessor, "An Unexpected Journey" had some notable flaws that made it a bit of a clunky start to what's arguably one of the most highly anticipated cinematic events of all time.
However, it appears that fans of Tolkien's stories and Jackson's affectionate — if sometimes overstuffed — interpretation of them can now celebrate accordingly: The first reviews of "The Desolation of Smaug" are in, and so far critics are unanimously calling it a superior film to its predecessor in every department.
"Who could guess, after the meandering first feature in a seemingly unnecessary eight-hour trilogy of films based on a novel of less than 300 pages, that Peter Jackson had such a vigorous and thrilling middle episode in store?" writes Richard Corliss of Time magazine, who includes the film on his Top 10 Best Movies of 2013 list. Corliss calls "Smaug" a "splendid achievement," one that's "close to the grandeur of Jackson's 'Lord of the Rings' films."
Justin Chang of Variety agrees that the film trumps "An Unexpected Journey" by a mile, writing that it "immediately evinces a livelier pace and a heightened sense of urgency." Chang says it's a "far more purposeful" second chapter, one with "a headier sense of forward momentum and a steady stream of 3D-enhanced thrills" and that its "sense of danger rarely flags."
Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter agrees that while "An Unexpected Journey" was a bit meandering, "Smaug" is all about staying on target. "Everything about 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' represents an improvement over the first installment" with "a sense of storytelling that possesses palpable energy and purpose," he writes.
"Middle-earth's got its mojo back," writes Nick de Semlyen in his five-star review at Empire, calling the film "a huge improvement on the previous installment" that's "moody, urgent and, for want of a better word, Ringsier."
Bill Desowitz of Thompson on Hollywood likes the film's "lighter, more swashbuckling tone," and goes so far as to mention "The Desolation of Smaug" in the same sentence as some classic second chapters of other beloved franchises: "Like 'The Two Towers,' and in keeping with 'The Godfather' and 'Star Wars' trilogies, this middle movie might prove to be the most satisfying, freed from exposition and closure."
While Peter Jackson could most definitely be described as a Tolkien purist, he's not above taking a few liberties with the text — and adding a brand new character, specifically in the form of the Elven warrior-woman Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly. Critics are divided on this "woman's touch" to the story, with Justin Chang of Variety writing that "the problem isn’t that Jackson has dared to tamper with Tolkien's sacred text, but rather that he has done so to relatively minor effect," resulting in "minimal emotional gains."
However, Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter is a fan of "the foxy archer fancied by Legolas (Orlando Bloom)," pointing out that "Women action figures and romantic subplots were not Tolkien's thing, so even the acknowledgment of sexual attraction represents a radical step in this context."
And then there's the dragon Smaug, whom Bill Desowitz of Thompson on Hollywood calls "the greatest CG dragon ever created on screen, thanks to the wizards of Weta." Justin Chang of Variety praises the mighty creature's "seething, unctuous tones" provided by star Martin Freeman's "Sherlock" pal Benedict Cumberbatch, though points out that his and Bilbo's "drawn-out confrontation and the dragon's endless monologues dissipate the tension somewhat en route to the cliffhanger ending."
THR's Todd McCarthy agrees that Smaug's yammering becomes oppressive ... and that Cumberbatch is unable to transcend the heavy text due to post-production tinkering. "Like some Bond villains who talked too much instead of quickly offing 007 when they had the chance, Smaug seems much enamored with the sound of his own voice. And a fine voice it is, supplied by Benedict Cumberbatch but too unnaturally deepened and electronically modified to afford pure enjoyment of the actor's menacing readings."
Nick de Semlyen of Empire loves everything about the big beast, though. "Smaug is a startlingly well-executed creation, toggling between arrogance, indolence and rage as he uses his wyrm-tongue to try to draw out Bilbo," he writes, praising Cumberbatch's work as the "honey-voiced" villain.
It appears as though the only screenings so far have been in 3D at 24 frames per second, which means the jury's still out on how the much-debated "high frame rate" of 48 fps looks with this second installment as compared to "An Unexpected Journey."
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" opens on Dec. 13.