I am a huge fan of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings adaptation, so it's with a heavy heart that I admit that his adaptation of The Hobbit has been for the most part a misfire. The first sign of danger was the news that Jackson was making three movies out of The Hobbit; there is no way the source material can support three long movies, even if you included all the songs. The second danger sign was in the first Hobbit movie's opening minutes, with a lengthy sequence of exposition showing the dragon Smaug's attack on the Lonely Mountain. While technically well-done, the sequence was indicative of where these new films were headed - sacrificing character moments and the heart of the source material for flashy effects and attempting to re-create past glories.
The good news is that the second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, is no worse than its predecessor. The bad news is that it's no better, either.
The movie opens with an odd flashback that shows Gandalf and Thorin meeting at the Prancing Pony, prior to the dwarves' visit to Bilbo in the Shire. What the point of this flashback is, I'm not entirely sure. We then join Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves, on the run yet again from orcs. They take refuge with the skin-changer Beorn (a great character from the book who is shamefully wasted in the film), and then venture into the creepy forest of Mirkwood. While making their way through the forest they're attacked by giant spiders and then taken prisoner by woodland elves. Said elves include Lord of the Rings alumnus Legolas (Orlando Bloom, apparently under the notion that if he doesn't make any facial expressions, we won't notice he's ten years older than he was in the Rings films) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) a female elf invented for the film (more on this in a moment). Thorin shows his diplomatic skills when he sasses the Elf King and the dwarves are thrown into prison, Bilbo breaks them out, Gandalf ditches the party to do something or other at some creepy place, there's a bunch of problems with local politics at Lake Town, and then finally we get to the only reason I paid good money for this film: DRAGON!
The initial scenes of the dragon Smaug and his huge treasure hoard are everything I had hoped they would be. The film conveys the vastness of the kingdom under the mountain, and the amount of wealth the dragon has amassed. Most of all, the film does a fantastic job of Smaug, who's both beautiful and terrifying (he's gorgeous aurally as well as visually, being voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). When the justly-terrified Bilbo has to make good on his dubious role as a burglar and venture into Smaug's lair, and then engages in a bit of banter to distract the dragon so he can escape with his life, everything clicks into place and the movie works.
Unfortunately these moments vanish all too soon and we're into a half-assed scene of Thorin's plan to kill the dragon, a scheme he would have known was doomed to fail if he'd thought about it for five minutes (remember what we all learned from Game of Thrones - fire cannot kill a dragon). So we end the movie with a pissed-off dragon, and a cliffhanger that will get resolved next Christmas.
The chief problem with The Desolation of Smaug isn't the material that's invented for the film, though it's fairly dire. Legolas seems to spend his time wishing he were anywhere else but in the film. Tauriel's only purpose in the film is to give it a female character - not bad in and of itself, but she spends much of that time making goo-goo eyes at Kili, the one dwarf who can pass for elf (and yes, it's that subtle).
No, the chief problem in this film (and in its predecessor) is the completely wrong tone for the whole affair, and the sacrifice of characterization. The film entirely lacks the warmth and affection of the Rings movies. All the dwarves except Balin are ungrateful jerks to Bilbo, and even Gandalf seems downright hostile to the hobbit. There's none of the joy and fun of adventure that is the heart of the source book. The movie should be about Bilbo and his journey from a staid conformist to a fun-loving adventurer, but the end credits of Desolation have more screen time than Bilbo does, and we rarely feel that he's enjoying his unexpected journey. Where is the Bilbo of the books, who not only defeated a bunch of giant spiders but was so delighted at his own bravery that he taunted them with a song? Movie Bilbo seems like he's going to need some PTSD therapy by the time he gets back to the Shire.
Throughout the Hobbit films, the story is sacrificed for spectacle. The series got off on the wrong foot by showing the dragon attack - that should have come later, when the dwarves' tale brings Bilbo's inner adventurer out of hiding. It's no surprise that in both Hobbit movies, the only scenes that have really worked have been quiet, dialogue-only moments - the "Riddles in the dark" scene in the first film, and Bilbo's banter with Smaug in this one. But then it's back to empty whiz-bang. Lots of sizzle, very little steak.
Still, that dragon is something special, and really should be experienced on the big screen. Just try to find a bargain price, and keep your expectations for the rest of the film low.