‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’: Far livelier than the last
And here I thought I was all but Hobbit-ed out. After the well-made but tedious table-setting exercise that was “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” I wasn’t too keen about two more prequel films — some 5 1/2 additional hours of hobbits and dwarves and orcs and elves and wizards and trolls, all questing for destiny, and destined for questioning, with characters saying things like:
“Where does your journey end? You see that which would bestow upon you the right to rule. The quest to reclaim a homeland and slay a dragon.”
Ah, but the good news: In “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” there’s far less fussing about. We’re starting to get to the point.
No doubt I’ll be consulting the “One Wiki to Rule Them All” and other entries in the 5 zillion Internet guides to all things J.R.R. Tolkien as we sift through some of the major plot details here, so strap in and hang on. (This stuff comes as naturally to hard-core Hobbit-heads as baseball and football stats come to me. We’re all nerds; some of us are just traveling down different aisles of the Library of the Geek Universe.)
It’s not easy to play a king who’s always looking up at taller creatures while bellowing about his right to rule the mountain, but Richard Armitage is terrific as Thorin Oakenshield. Doggedly, sometimes stubbornly determined, Thorin seeks to return to Lonely Mountain, enlist Bilbo Baggins to swipe a magical gem known as the Arkenstone from beneath a sleeping dragon and reclaim the kingdom for his people. (This is way harder than any challenge anyone’s ever had to do on the TV show “The Amazing Race.”)
Joining Thorin on his journey: a small band of loyal and courageous dwarves; the hobbit known as Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and, on occasion, Gandalf himself (Ian McKellen), though the great wizard gets called away on other duties. (McKellen is, of course, grandly entertaining as Gandalf, who appears frail and weary in some close-ups — and then we cut to some action sequence where the old wizard is outrunning everyone else, and we hear McKellen’s voice while watching what has to be a 30-year-old stuntman dressed as Gandalf.)
Peter Jackson’s 3-D visuals are as breathtaking as ever, whether we’re looking at location shoots, elaborate sets, computer-generated imagery or some combination thereof. Dwarves and hobbits and elves share the screen with giant spiders and oversized bees and other amazing creatures, and it all looks hyperrealistic.
At times “The Desolation of Smaug” is like a Western done up Tolkien-style, with the dwarves and Bilbo trying to stay one step ahead of the relentless posse of orcs hell-bent on killing them before they reach the mountain. The dwarves get some help from Beorn the skin-changer (and
we get some helpful exposition about Beorn the skin-changer’s backstory), who hates dwarves but hates orcs more.
There’s also an extended sequence in the sick, evil forest of Mirkwood, which is populated by huge, wonderfully disgusting spiders. That’s followed by a thrilling and hilarious sequence in an elvish prison, where Bilbo engineers an escape that’s like something right out of a classic silent movie.
Some of this stuff exists only so Jackson can stretch a 276-page book into a three-movie, eight-hour trilogy. Sure, every time the dwarves clear a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, they’re just a little bit closer to the Lonely Mountain — but some of the diversions and distractions are there mainly so Jackson and his team of technical wizards can work their movie magic.
Perhaps my favorite character in “Smaug” is Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel, a gorgeous elf warrior who’s the most skilled fighter of anyone in this saga, and that includes Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, who clearly has a thing for her and simmers with jealousy when she becomes smitten with a handsome dwarf. (Now there’s a romantic triangle we don’t see every day.) Tauriel is smart and stubborn and lovely and heroic. She rocks.
As for the bad guys, here’s the thing about these orcs. Despite their classic evil-creature growly voices and their fearsome appearance and thirst for blood, they seem to suck at actually fighting. Marauding through the town of Esgaroth, they’re no match for Legolas and Tauriel, who take out dozens of them without ever mussing up their hair.*
Smaug. Now there’s a formidable foe. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, slithering about while bantering with Bilbo, this is a dragon as James Bond villain. Smaug’s evil and he loves being evil, and he loves to talk about being evil and how he’s going to make these stupid little creatures pay for their insolence.
As much as I enjoyed Cumberbatch’s line readings, there’s something silly about a talking dragon, even one that breathes fire and knows Tolkien-speak. It detracts from the feeling of real peril. Even though “Smaug” moves at a faster pace than the first part of the journey, it feels overlong. I still feel this whole Hobbit tale could have been told in one great, 3-hour movie.
At least this leg of the journey featured giant spiders and a hot elf. Can’t miss with that.
*Note: In the upcoming “August: Osage County,” the violence doesn’t extend beyond the smashing of a few plates and a wrestling match over a bottle of pills. But that film is rated R because of frequent use of the f-bomb, whereas “The Desolation of Smaug” is PG-13 despite the intense action, much carnage and even some beheadings. I guess as long as you’re lopping off the heads of orcs and not cute dwarves, spry hobbits or gorgeous elves, you’re OK.