By Jeff Labrecque
Updated December 13, 2013 at 06:21 PM EST
Credit: Mark Pokorny

For four epic Middle-earth adventures, director Peter Jackson has brought to life the famous hobbits, dwarfs, elves, orcs, and wizards from J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination. But in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, part 2 of Jackson’s three-part quest to wring ever last ounce of drama from Tolkien’s slim Lord of the Ring‘s predecessor, the visual feast starts and ends with a giant dragon who sounds an awful lot like Sherlock Holmes.

Smaug is the apocalypse-breathing dragon who evicted the dwarfs from their mountain home and now swims in their treasure. Jackson has compared Smaug to Hannibal Lecter, and the allure of his inevitable confrontation with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) promises to be as anticipated and delighted in as the hobbit’s first encounter with Gollum in the previous movie, An Unexpected Journey. “The dragon is, quite simply, a marvel,” writes EW’s Owen Gleiberman, “gargantuan yet balletic, hoarding his mountain of gold with a razor-toothed smile, breathing not just flame but an inferno, and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch with the most delicious, insidious knowledge.”

Joining Bilbo in the second leg of his adventure, along with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the baker’s dozen of dwarfs, is a familiar face from the Rings trilogy: Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, who wasn’t originally written in The Hobbit. Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, go even further outside the Tolkien canon with Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a wholly-invented female-warrior elf who introduces a romantic thread not entirely unwelcome in the film, according to many critics.

Before you head to the theater — wearing your fuzzy hobbit slippers, of course — click below to see what the leading critics are saying about The Desolation of Smaug.

Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) ▲

“Does The Desolation of Smaug meander? Of course it does — it’s a hobbit movie! Yet Jackson’s direction is spiky and majestic, and the risky move of inventing his own Tolkien character — the elf guard Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) — as a love interest for Legolas (Orlando Bloom) pays off.”

Ty Burr (Boston Globe)

The Desolation of Smaug quickly becomes a game of three-dimensional battle chess between dwarves, elves, orcs, and men rampaging across parapets and down boiling rapids. Some of these scenes are exciting; others feel as if you’re playing a video game with someone else’s thumbs.”

Rene Rodriguez (Miami Herald)

“[Smaug] uses so much animation it practically qualifies as a Pixar movie. And although the movie ends on an enormous, groan-inducing cliffhanger, this story has been stretched so thin that all the suspense has seeped out of it.”

Richard Corliss (TIME) ▲

Smaug is different [than An Unexpected Journey]: a really good movie, superior to the first in that it brings its characters to rambunctious life, to joust not just with Orcs but with a bear-man, a clutter of giant spiders and the grim dragon that gives the movie its title.

Bilge Ebiri (New York)

“You could now probably get away with cutting (or ignoring) the entirety of An Unexpected Journey. You’d miss the pretty good Gollum scenes, but I’m not sure you’d lose anything all that crucial to the story itself.”

Betsy Sharkey (Los Angeles Times)

“Fortunately for Smaug, the storytelling trumps the technology. Jackson’s latest go at Tolkien’s treasured Hobbit story gets closer to that rich alchemy of fantasy, adventure, imagination and emotion that made his Lord of the Rings trilogy such a triumph.”

Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle) ▼

“Notice the transparent effort made to render dramatic and full of import the minor pulse beats of … not even a story, but a thin sliver of a story. … Everything is emphasized, and so nothing has emphasis. Everything is pumped full of importance, and so nothing has importance.”

Liam Lacey (Toronto Globe and Mail)

“The trouble is, as [Jackson] shovels on the visual awesomeness, the characters can feel like cutout figures bobbing about against a gorgeous diorama. Nothing much has improved here on that front.”

Michael O’Sullivan (Washington Post)

“Purists may moan that [the seemingly sacrilegious addition of the elf Legolas and the outright invention of a female elf character named Tauriel] simply aren’t needed, but they certainly don’t hurt. What’s more, they’re actually cool as heck.”

Mahohla Dargis (New York Times)

“Tauriel was created to femme up the nearly all-male world of the Hobbit and is one of the better realized and welcome liberties taken…. So it’s irritating that she’s saddled with a romance, a pandering turn that suggests Mr. Jackson, unlike his female fans, can’t even imagine a woman without a man.”

Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter)

“Like some Bond villains who talk too much instead of quickly offing 007 when they have the chance, Smaug seems much enamored with the sound of his own voice. And a fine voice it is … but too unnaturally deepened and electronically modified to afford pure enjoyment of the actor’s menacing readings.”

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Overall Metacritic rating (1-100): 65

Rotten Tomatoes: 74 percent

Rated: PG-13

Length: 161 Minutes

Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch

Directed by Peter Jackson

Distributor: Warner Bros.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 161 minutes
  • Peter Jackson