Time's Richard Corliss placing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug on his Top 10 list doesn't seem to be a fluke. First reviews of The Hobbit's middle stretch call it a big improvement over the little-loved An Unexpected Journey. Here's what they're saying, with updates as they roll in:
Nick de Semlyen, Empire:
Middle-earth's got its mojo back. A huge improvement on the previous instalment, this takes our adventurers into uncharted territory and delivers spectacle by the ton. And in case you were wondering, yes, someone manages to say the title as dialogue.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter:
After exhibiting an almost craven fidelity to his source material the first time out, Jackson gets the drama in gear here from the outset with a sense of storytelling that possesses palpable energy and purpose.
Justin Chang, Variety
As ever, in terms of logistical mastery and marshaling of resources in service of a grandly involving bigscreen entertainment, one couldn’t ask for a better ringmaster (so to speak) than Jackson. There's an unmistakable pleasure in being transported back to his Middle-earth, in being cushioned by the lush strains of Howard Shore's score and dazzled by the elaborately detailed sets created by production designer Dan Hennah and his team, seamlessly integrating Weta’s topnotch visual effects. Although Andy Serkis' inimitable computer-aided performance as Gollum goes missing this time around, the actor once again serves as second unit director, as he does on the other two Hobbit films as well.
Richard Corliss, Time:
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? With Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the dwarves finally done with introductory dawdling, they dive into a nonstop adventure among the noble Elves, the rough-hewn humans of Laketown and the ferocious dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). This time, Andy Serkis has not lent his presence to Gollum, but his work as second-unit director is spectacular. Each complex encounter, especially a flume-ride escape of the dwarves, boasts a teeming ingenuity of action and character.
Jordan Hoffman, Screencrush:
There aren't any dwarves singing and doing dishes in this one, and while that was a bone of contention for many, I would have preferred a little bit of that spring in the movie's step. Instead we have a second act where we're introduced to a slew of new characters in a drab setting. Stephen Fry appears, gets a scene to ramble about things not germane to the plot, and basically disappears. When one of the dwarves oversleeps and misses a boat trip, anyone who hasn’t read the books (or just watched the first Hobbit) will ask, "Who’s this guy? Why do I care that he overslept?"
Keith Uhlich, Time Out:
By the time the beast finally spreads his wings to full span, soaring skyward toward a moon vaguely reminiscent of the one in E.T., you're left in the kind of breathless awe that so few current cinematic superproductions are able to offer.
Rodrigo Perez, The Playlist:
So while Smaug has forward-momentum, and is chockablock with battles and evil conflicts (Orcs, giant spiders, a Necromancer, a pointless digression with a shape shifter that hates dwarves, suspicious and selfish elves), it’s actually the lesser and emptier of the two films (though I concede most audiences are probably not in need of much more and are likely going to enjoy this episode better).
Robbie Collin, The Telegraph:
The tone is one hundred percent Jackson -- a kind of thundering gloominess, cut with the occasional glint of Discworld mischief. Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, have decapitated bodies twitching on the ground, and a captured dwarf leering at a female elf: "Aren’t you going to search me? I could have anything down my trousers." Maybe this really is what a lot of people want to see from a film version of The Hobbit, but let’s at least accept that Tolkien would probably not have been among them.
Jim Vejvoda, IGN:
For a movie nearly three hours long, The Desolation of Smaug hauls ass from beginning to end, from its Western-style flashback opening to its serial-like ending. The film's brisk movement largely works, although there are a few hiccups and odd, choppy editorial choices around the time we meet Beorn that mar that nearly perfect pace. When the end credits finally roll, you truly are left wanting more (and, no, I won't tell you what scene it ends on even if you have read the book).
The Desolation of Smaug is a cheerfully entertaining and exhilarating adventure tale, a supercharged Saturday morning picture: it's mysterious and strange and yet Jackson also effortlessly conjures up that genial quality that distinguishes The Hobbit from the more solemn Rings stories. The absurdity is winning: you're laughing with, not laughing at.
Peter Jackson is putting himself and his amazing crew through just as rigorous and demanding an experience as he did on Lord of the Rings, if not more so. He is not resting on his laurels in any way. He couldn't, though. This is a much harder project to adapt, and looking at the differences between Unexpected Journey and this second film, The Desolation of Smaug, it's a pretty great practical lesson in how these kinds of films work.
Matt Maytum, Total Film:
If the tension and sense of epic questing is never as acute as it was in LOTR, there is at least plenty to enjoy. Held up against the series' high standards, it’s not without issues, but it remains a cut above standard blockbuster fare.
Be forewarned Book Fans, because of the extent DOS deviates from J.R.R. Tolkien's original, you can bet your bottom dollar there will be a very vocal fan reaction, if not an outright scream of frustration from one or two up in the balcony. The filmmakers have certainly delivered the goods; it is a very enjoyable movie that pretty much blows the audience away with well-crafted storytelling. It is by turns breathlessly paced and frightening and funny and gorgeous (Smaug especially has much of his "muchness"). But by the end credits, it no longer resembles the book you read as a kid, not by a long shot.
Todd Gilchrist, The Wrap:
Jackson unveils the second chapter in his trilogy with a clarity that should restore fans' faith in his storytelling. As compelling as its mythology was, the Lord of the Rings films really found their footing when they uncovered the universal, relatable emotions that the characters experienced, and then applied that to the story and the action.
Mark Adams, Screen Daily:
Rather than suffering from that 'middle film in a trilogy' syndrome, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a freewheeling and exciting second film that moves at a breathless pace offering up entertainment and excitement in equal measure and ends on a dramatic high that will have fantasy fans desperate for more.
Jason Gorber, Twitch:
If you don't like The Desolation of Smaug, if you're honest you probably didn't like the Lord of the Rings films very much, either. For even more so than the previous outing, this chapter feels very much like a (welcome) expansion on the world that the original trilogy helped create.
Edward Douglas, Coming Soon:
Franchise movies based on books sometimes aren't believable because no matter how much danger is thrown the way of the protagonists, you never get the feeling any of them can die—they'll figure a way out or someone will come along to save them. In this case, Jackson creates so much tension you honestly think that he'll go "off book" and that some of the key players might not survive what they're forced to overcome during the journey.
William Bibbiani, Crave Online:
For every impressively dramatic addition to the simple tale -- Kili (Aiden Turner) gets an intriguing love interest this time, in the form of a very conflicted elf -- there's something that feels out of place or repetitive. We finally get to see what Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellan) was up to when he abandoned the dwarves in the Forest of Mirkwood, but what he was up to was distractingly full of exposition and, in the end, distractingly similar to what he was up to when he abandoned Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring. Maybe that's what Tolkien intended, but it's not terribly fascinating.
R. Kurt Osenlund, Slant Magazine:
That these films even carry the title "The Hobbit" is something of a joke, as Bilbo, Tolkien's first beloved halfling, and the burglar who finds the One Ring that will determine the fate of this whole blessed universe, has been reduced to a fuzzy-footed tool -- a faux protagonist who's only called upon when other characters are in a tight spot.