Beginning with the blessing of not being stuck with a bunch of hungry and thirsty dwarves in Bilbo Baggins's hut for a half-hour at the outset, nearly everything about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug represents an improvement over the first installment of Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved creation. The “unexpected journey” launched in last Christmas's box office behemoth becomes the heart of the matter this time around, making for plenty of peril, warfare, theme-park-ride-style escapes and little-guy courage. For Jackson and Warner Bros., it's another movie, another billion.
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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. Toward the end, his perennial tendency to let bloat creep in reasserts itself to an extent—as in the Lord of the Rings films, not to mention King Kong, he has a hard time knowing when enough is enough even as the three-hour goalpost looms dead ahead. But for the most part he moves the episodic tale along with reasonable speed for a leviathan while serving up enough fights, close shaves and action-filled melodrama for an old-fashioned movie serial or a modern video game.
Part two is almost entirely devoted to the dangerous expedition of 13 dwarves recruited by the Wizard Gandalf with the aim of reinstating Thorin Oakenshield to his rightful place as monarch of the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor lost in the devastating battle that opened the first film. Although dangers lurk at every step of the way—even more than exist in the book—the one looming over all is Smaug, a huge flying dragon that lives deep in the bowels of the Lonely Mountain that must be subdued if evil is to be denied an enduring triumph.
Although they has mined Tolkien's extensive appendices to The Lord of the Rings to flesh out the story—roughly nine hours will be expended in adapting a book of less than 300 pages—Jackson and habitual co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, along with original intended director Guillermo del Toro, have further expanded the dramatis personae by recruiting Legolas from Rings and inventing a welcome female character named Tauriel, a foxy archer fancied by Legolas but who herself shows an interest in Thorin. Women action figures and romantic subplots were not Tolkien's thing, so even the acknowledgment of sexual attraction represents a radical step in this context.
With prolonged exposure to this tale comes awareness of some of the premise's limitations as performed drama. There is incident and confrontation galore, beginning with the portentous, tavern-set opening scene in which Gandalf lights a fire under Thorin, followed by the dwarves's arrival at their first destination, the farm of the “skin-changer” Beorn, first seen in the form of a bear. Then, once Galdalf leaves them to their own devices, the diminutive ones must contend with the dangers lurking within the vast Mirkwood forest, foremost of which are giant spiders that quickly spin webs around the morsel-sized travelers. Always, they are stalked and, as often as not, attacked by the fearsome Orcs, muscle-bound uglies in league with Smaug to continue their dominion over Erebor.
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However, as one skirmish follows another, it becomes clear that suspense cannot be a factor here because the rules of the game mitigate against it. Where the elves are concerned, there is no danger because they are, by nature, immortal. This is not the case for the dwarves but, with the exception of one injury, the little guys consistently escape unharmed while the humongous and ferocious orcs go down as easily as shooting gallery ducks. Just as a token bow to credibility, you'd think a few dwarves might be sacrificed, but nope, they're all charmed.
With Ian McKellen's ever-imposing Gandalf bowing out for a long stretch on other pressing business (consult the appendices), it might seem that the heavy lifting would be taken up by Martin Freeman's slowly flowering Bilbo Baggins. At times it is. He does have a nose for gold, first in the form of the inevitable and mischievously errant ring, then with the treasures in the deepest sanctum of the ruined mountain kingdom now occupied by the slumbering titular dragon. Feeling his way, Bilbo gradually accepts the call to greatness Gandalf has thrust upon him.
Still, Bilbo also steps to the side through a middle stretch that provides time not only for Legolas (with a blond-tressed Orlando Bloom not missing a step, nor an arrow shot, since Ring) and Tauriel (a winning Evangeline Lilly, of TV's Lost) but for a significant layover in a port called Lake-town. The central player here is Bard (Luke Evans, excellent), a barge man and trader who smuggles the dwarves into a Middle Ages-style backwater in which working stiffs, struggling families, layabouts and criminals are lorded over by the smart and venal Master, brought to vibrant Dickensian life by Stephen Fry. As they are preoccupied by the real-world concerns of commerce, politics and personal intrigue rather than monsters, mythology and regal destiny, Bard and Master are the two most recognizably human characters in the film.
Once Bilbo provides the key to the kingdom at the mountain, his main order of business is to avoid being swallowed whole or burned to a crisp by the fire-bellied Smaug, who's almost too big for the human-built quarters he occupies. Like some Bond villains who talked too much instead of quickly offing 007 when they had the chance, Smaug seems much enamored with the sound of his own voice. And a fine voice it is, supplied by Benedict Cumberbatch but too unnaturally deepened and electronically modified to afford pure enjoyment of the actor's menacing readings. The ending is a true cliffhanger, the resolution to which audiences will be lining up for on Dec. 17, 2014.
Visually, the predominance of CGI in most scenes is consistent not only with the previous entry but all the Rings films and too many of Jackson's and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie's carefully calibrated swooping and circling camera moves look like they were generated by a computer program. On the other hand, the distractingly vivid images provided by the 48 frames-per-second in the first film appear to have been massaged properly this time and there is a notably lower-than-average reduction in image brightness when using the 3D glasses.
Opens: Dec. 13 (Warner Bros.)
Production: New Line Cinema, MGM, Wingnut Films
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom, Mikael Persbrandt, Sylvester McCoy, Aidan Turner, Dean O'Gorman, Graham McTavish, Adam Brown, Peter Hambleton, John Callen, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, Ryan Gage, John Bell, Manu Bennett, Lawrence Makoare
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Producers: Peter Jackson, Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh
Executive producers: Alan Horn, Toby Emmerich, Ken Kamins, Carolyn Blackwood
Director of photography: Andrew Lesnie
Production designer: Dan Hennah
Costume designers: Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey, Richard Taylor
Editor: Jabez Olssen
Music: Howard Shore
Senior visual effects supervisor: Joe Letteri
PG-13 rating, 161 minutes