The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug may very well be the best of Peter Jackson's Tolkien films.
I've long held that this distinction properly belongs to his first, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the one where everything worked best, with the most consistently iconic moments and the cast doing its best work, all revolving around the best performance in the series to date, Sean Bean's Boromir. The next three found various ways to disappoint me (The Two Towers only came alive in the scenes with Gollum, The Return of the King was only properly cumulative in admittedly the crucial scenes at Mount Doom, and An Unexpected Journey once again in the Gollum sense). It seemed each time that as Jackson worked in such a famously continuous fashion, he kept losing his ability to fire on all necessary cylinders.
What changed that? A lot of things. His first three films made film history, were universally acclaimed as some of the best movies ever made, and whether or not that was ever true, they did change the course of popular entertainment. For one thing, they gave someone like Guillermo del Toro the opportunity to explore his creative potential in a movie like Pan's Labyrinth, and another, it opened the door for the fantasy genre to go mainstream, which led to the TV series Game of Thrones. There were a lot of other effects, but these two are the most relevant to my argument of how Desolation of Smaug ended up the best of Jackson's efforts to date.
Del Toro, of course, was headed toward directing The Hobbit himself. His fingerprints are there in the renewed and heightened depiction of the monstrous bad guys in the latest two films, and even how foreign languages are now free to exist with subtitles in a major genre production. Game of Thrones, meanwhile, among other things helped remind people that perhaps it truly was Sean Bean who was the breakout star of the first three Jackson efforts after all. It's Bean who leaves the biggest acting impression on the new films. Richard Armitage is more reminiscent of Bean than Viggo Mortensen, even though he inhabits a role far more comparable to Mortensen's Aragorn than Bean's Boromir.
Both points aren't even the main reason I've come to consider the latest offering so brightly. The most maligned element of these new efforts may be that Jackson made the decision to expand the slender Hobbit into three films. On the surface it is undoubtedly because he wanted a chance to make as many movies as possible out of it, because he was simply used to working like that, the traditional trilogy structure that he himself helped revive previously. This required him to expand the material itself, which many observers have scoffed at, even though he had already liberally adapted Tolkien with his other films. That he now did so at a substantially elevated rate meant Jackson would have greater control than ever before on his own legacy.
And this is a very good thing. Audiences were originally very happy to see his interpretation of Middle Earth. It's safe to say that as far as mainstream audiences go, anything anyone knows about Tolkien's fantasy world comes from Peter Jackson. When he made the decision to adapt The Hobbit into a sequel/prequel, he had the chance to build on what he had done before, and in fact reverse engineer what J.R.R. Tolkien himself had done when he wrote Hobbit first and Lord of the Rings later, having to revise the first later in order to increase its significance and relation to the new material, especially in regards to that pesky ring Bilbo Baggins found.
It's more apparent in Desolation of Smaug than it was in An Unexpected Journey that Jackson was aware of this significant opportunity. For one thing, everyone knew he would be adding in his own material far more in this one than the first. The casting of Evangeline Lilly and return of Orlando Bloom were both signals, given who they would be playing, that this was where Jackson would be affecting the bulk of his expansion.
There are two very important things accomplished by the characters Lilly and Bloom play. The first is that Lilly's Tauriel is an entirely new creation. The second is that Bloom's Legolas patently did not appear in The Hobbit originally. Legolas was a supporting character who mostly interacted comically with John Rhys Davies' Gimli when he wasn't shooting things dramatically with arrows. Bloom had far more exposure as a would-be buccaneer in the later Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He notably takes the opportunity to give a more dynamic performance this time, the same way Elijah Wood patently fashioned his reprisal of Frodo in Unexpected Journey after not his own original performance but Daniel Radcliffe's Harry Potter.
That in itself signals something important about Jackson's new films, and Smaug specifically. He is more aware than anyone that the new films are an opportunity to improve on his original results. I know, this sounds ridiculous. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was so beloved so instantly that Return of the King won the Best Picture at the 2004 Oscars. This is practically unheard-of in genre film-making. How do you possibly improve on that? For most fans, they will be happy enough that Jackson's making new movies, but they secretly believe that they can never compare to the old ones.
It's a little like George Lucas, actually. Star Wars fans will never understand how Lucas could look at his original trilogy and think, "Well that could be done better." He's been thinking that so often in the past fifteen years or so, these fans have actively thought Lucas has a screw loose or something. Yet an artist in a medium where the creative culture has long made it acceptable to tinker with the product, a process that begins on the original editing floor, can't help but think like that. No other entertainment medium makes it so easy for the artist to do that. When a song is changed, it's called a remix. When a book is changed, that's usually just a expanded rerelease (which is extremely rare). TV shows never change. There's no reason to even consider it.
Anyway, so even outside of George Lucas, it happens in film on a fairly regular basis, and eventually Peter Jackson looked at his original trilogy and thought, "Well that could be done better." He'd already done that, remember, with those extended editions. A decade after working on the first trilogy, he finds himself in the position to do essentially the same thing all over again. And so he figures out that this is an opportunity to sink himself even deeper into the artist's seat. The first films were already hugely artistic successes. They were such distinctive movies because of that. Because he stumbled into becoming the steward of Tolkien, a role emphasized when the effort to let someone else direct additional material fell apart, Jackson could do what most people erroneously considered unthinkable.
He could make his efforts better. The structure of the Hobbit trilogy is patterned after the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is nakedly obvious. The difference is that a Jackson who is engaged to a far greater degree because he has to come up with far more of the material himself is a director who has to take into account the full vision for himself. Consequently, he does things like have Gandalf discover that the Necromancer is not just some random bogeyman but rather the first hints of Sauron's return, which necessarily force the same resonance in the rest of the material, which makes the whole thing about far more than a simple heroic quest, and far more like the epic journey Jackson previously tackled. And because it's not just Tolkien in the material anymore, it's also Jackson and also more direct reflections on the world outside the studio window as the films are completed.
Smaug features greater emphasis on character arc and development than virtually every other Tolkien film so far. This is another way I see a reflection of Sean Bean's Boromir, because it's in Fellowship and that character where this is previously and almost exclusively to be found otherwise. Gollum is an eccentric whose journey spans two films and isn't as conclusive as it could be, but he's the next best example of this kind of work. Everyone else is headed only toward the inevitable. Because Jackson created someone new with Tauriel, he was forced to do the Boromir arc all over again. He had to figure out what to do with the character. And so Smaug features something at once familiar but also the most interesting thing about the film, a stopover with elves that ends up with the action Jackson clearly enjoys (which dominated both Return of the King and Unexpected Journey to detrimental degrees), dramatic rescues that in the arc of Tauriel have more to do with character development than the need to keep audiences engaged while elsewhere there's talk talk talk.
Lilly and Bloom, meanwhile, have the added bonus of defining the acting in the new films better than the assorted ranks of dwarves previously managed. Lee Pace is likewise a standout as another of the elves. Luke Evans as the requisite human-sized character assists as well. The voice of Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug does what the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch always does, which is electrify those scenes. Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen meanwhile continue to carry the heft of the rest of the cast. The original films were not just at their best in the art but their terrific casting jobs, something that was so evident that nearly every actor in those films went on to at least one other prominent role in the decade that followed. In a way, no matter how much Smaug improves on Unexpected Journey in that regard, there's no way these new films can match that record.
Peter Jackson clearly understood the potential of doing Tolkien all over again. Desolation of Smaug is the moment he works his own best magic in these films. If Pan's Labyrinth or Game of Thrones made what he previously accomplished look almost routine in retrospect, Jackson now accepted the task of doing something no one else could do. I think he succeeded.