The strangest thing about Peter Jackson's first Hobbit installation, subtitled An Unexpected Journey, was that it seemed like the kind of movie someone would make 15 to 20 years before making The Lord of the Rings.
All the ingredients from LOTR were there—the CGI, the epic battle sequences, the camera work, the epic plots—but where The Lord of the Rings was mature, focused, and straightforward, An Unexpected Journey was silly, immature, and meandering. It felt like the paper of a reasonably skilled college freshman in an English 101 class: full of potential and promise, but sloppily executed.
Which makes it so much weirder that An Unexpected Journey was made almost 11 years after the first Lord of the Rings movie was released. Fans of Lord of the Rings who disliked The Hobbit weren't angry that director Peter Jackson was failing to deliver on "the potential he'd shown earlier"—the Lord of the Rings films had delivered that potential.
All of this meant that expectations for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (which I'm calling Desolation for the rest of this review, both for length reasons and because it sounds cool) were, at best, confused. On the one hand, audiences were excited to see it because of course we want more Hobbit; we were, frankly, willing to take whatever small taste of Middle Earth we could get, whether or not it was as good as the first three times around.
But, on the other, the failures of An Unexpected Journey made people's guesses about how good Desolation would be to dip sharply. I don't think anyone expected this movie to be taut, a quality the Lord of the Rings movies had in spades. Maybe the biggest achievement of the Rings movies was that (except maybe for the first one) you were never conscious that you were watching a three (three!)-hour movie.
Desolation, for better or worse, is somewhere between the Rings films and An Unexpected Journey; it's an incremental improvement, but still leans more towards the Hobbit 1 side of things than the other.
Desolation picks up right where An Unexpected Journey left off—Bilbo (the pitch-perfect Martin Freeman) and his company of dwarves, led by heir to the dwarven throne Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), are headed towards Erebor—the sub-mountainous home that the dwarves used to call home. Standing problem: there is a giant dragon housed inside the mountain, named Smaug, who originally drove the dwarves out of Erebor (colloquially called The Lonely Mountain). The movie documents Bilbo and co.'s attempt to walk towards the mountain, and the problems they face while they walk towards the mountain.
I think that sentence betrays one of the movie's core problems: it is about people walking towards a place. Peter Jackson said of The Two Towers that the biggest problem was "that it had no beginning or end," and this is doubly true of Desolation. If I were to make a rough estimate, I'd say about 45 to 50 minutes of the movie features our heroes running from things that want to kill them. And that's not counting the in-chase conversations, the asides, the brief pauses, any of it—I mean it's almost an hour of people running towards places. Desolation may be much more taut than An Unexpected Journey, but it's still a bit of a slouch.