I am probably not the most objective judge of the Hobbit movies. I grew up on Tolkien's books, and I am not ashamed of admitting that I saw The Fellowship of the Ring in cinemas 9 times. Simply to see Middle Earth onscreen will always be a pleasure for me.
Much of that pleasure is present in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (H2 for short), the second installation in the Hobbit trilogy. I can't help but think that if the Lord of the Rings trilogy hadn't come first that these films would be being hailed as the standard-setters in fantasy filmmaking, because there really is nothing else like them, even now, more than a decade after The Fellowship of the Ring hit theatres.
The thing that Peter Jackson is arguably best at is a sense of scale. Middle Earth is huge, and Jackson's swooping camera movements and wide pan shots emphasize how small individuals are in this massive world of Tolkien's imagination. I saw this film twice, once in 35mm and once in HFR 3D, and while I'm usually a skeptic of 3D films, I have to admit the effect actually made a real contribution to the movie's impact. I know that plenty of people have complained about the HFR, and it does take some adjusting; actions move smoothly, details are crisp. Once my eyes became accustomed to it, however, I appreciated the lack of blur in the fast-paced, ever-moving sweeping shots that Jackson is so fond of. When I saw H2 in 35mm, many of the action shots seemed to pass in a blur. In HFR, every hair on the spiders and every scale on Smaug was crisp and clear, making these monsters even more terrifying. The 3D also contributed; Jackson's camera motions are notorious for their drunken, helter-skelter sweeping through the scene, and in 3D I felt even more like I was flying through Dol Guldur or swooping down a tunnel with Smaug.
The action has been considerably ramped up, both in quantity and scale, from the first film. While I actually really loved the opening of Unexpected Journey and its focus on Hobbiton and Bilbo's dismay at meeting all these unruly Dwarves, many other people hated what they perceived as slow pacing. That isn't really a problem here, although those who haven't read the books may think the Beorn excursion dead weight that doesn't contribute to the forward motion of the story. (They would be wrong, of course.) The action setpieces are here in full force, and several of them are quite inventive, such as the barrel escape from Mirkwood. Bilbo's confrontation with the Mirkwood spiders made me squirm in my seat, and I may or may not have squealed once. (I did. I totally did.)
In fact, for me there is almost too much action. The reason I love Jackson's original Lord of the Rings trilogy isn't its action scenes -- although the battle of Helm's Deep will remain one of the greatest battle scenes ever committed to film -- but its heart. He was comfortable taking a break from the epic to focus on moments of intimate emotion, such as Boromir's death scene in Fellowship or Sam's heartbreaking inspirational speech in The Two Towers. When Jackson is content to linger on his actors' performances in these new films, there are some real moments of beauty. Ian McKellen's Gandalf can't help but dominate the screen when he's present -- he could be reading the menu at Pizza Hut and make it sound apocalyptic. Martin Freeman remains my favorite actor in this trilogy, although he is sorely underused; for a movie about THE Hobbit he isn't onscreen as much as you'd expect. When he is, though, his performance continues to be pitch-perfect. Freeman brings exactly the right blend of pluckiness and timidity that I would hope for from Bilbo Baggins. His interactions with Smaug, voiced by his Sherlock costar Benedict Cumberbatch, are incontestably the best scenes in the film.
The trouble is that there aren't enough of these personal moments, and characters tend to get lost in the onslaught of action. Even excellent confrontations, like the scenes near the end when Smaug and the dwarves face off, are drawn out too long. This movie would be better about 20-30 minutes shorter. And there are no emotional gut-punches like there are in the original trilogy. Jackson tries, with his addition of Tauriel and her (completely unnecessary) love triangle or his expansion of Bard the bargeman's backstory as an unwilling political dissident. These character touches are nice, but they don't carry the weight of the stories in Lord of the Rings.
Perhaps that is somewhat inevitable: although the events in The Hobbit would eventually be ret-conned into The Lord of the Rings, the scale of the events is smaller. We're not looking at the extinction of Middle Earth here; we're talking about a very small band of people trying to reclaim their homeland. While that shouldn't be dismissed as a story not worth telling, it can be more difficult to feel like the weight of the world relies on this group's success. Jackson begins to suggest in H2 the larger importance of getting Smaug out of the Lonely Mountain with scenes involving Gandalf investigating the potential rise of Sauron, but for people unfamiliar with the source material, it might not be very clear yet. And Thorin Oakenshield is -- as he was in the book -- an unrelenting douchebag. The Hobbit films seem to want him to be another Aragorn, a king in search of his kingdom, but while I like Richard Armitage, he isn't Viggo Mortensen, and Thorin has few of Aragorn's redeeming characteristics.
Nevertheless, while the characterization leaves a lot to be desired, technically, the film is beautiful. There are scenes here that made my jaw drop; the aforementioned spiders, the first time Bilbo enters Smaug's hoard room, and a gorgeous moment when Smaug, covered in gold, pirouettes through the night sky scattering drops of light around him. Enjoyed simply as a feast for the eyes, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug delivers. As an adaptation of Tolkien's short novel, it has some great moments, but it's too long in general and too focused on action scenes in particular.