I am happy to report that ”The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is a better movie than last year’s interminable “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
Of course, this is a bit like congratulating grandma for outrunning great grandma.
Both movies are overpadded, meandering, and infuriating in their insistence on turning a whimsical book for children into a lumbering behemoth of narrative and economic overkill.
Against their dramatic shortcomings, one must balance the undeniable technical creativity behind director Peter Jackson’s vision.
“Smaug” finds our Hobbit hero Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his band of waddling dwarves drawing ever closer to the mountain beneath which the dragon Smaug lurks with his vast treasure of stolen riches.
There are moments here that I recognize from my long-ago reading of “The Hobbit,” like the gigantic spiders that wrap up the adventurers in the forest of Mirkwood, putting them into storage for future meals. Or Bilbo’s figuring out of a an ancient riddle that will open that secret mountainside doorway to Smaug’s vast underground realm.
But Jackson and his co-writers (Fran Walsh, Philipa Boyens) have tossed in a lot of stuff that never appeared in the book. Foremost among these is the reappearance of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas (a character from the “Lord of the Rings”) and the introduction of a lady elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), who has been cut from whole cloth.
Tauriel and Legolas are an item, sort of, but she is inexplicably taken with Kili (Aidan Turner), the least grotesque of the dwarfs … could a bit of Middle Earth miscegination be our future? Stay tuned.
Anyway, all this elfin business clearly has been devised to remind viewers of the much better LOTR trilogy, provide a strong female character (the book hasn’t one) and deliver numerous opportunities for elf-on-orc mayhem. Tauriel and Legolas are Middle Earth’s version of light middleweight fighters — quick on their feet, acrobatic, and deadly with bow or sword.
Another new character is Bard the Bargeman (Luke Evans), a ruggedly handsome smuggler who sneaks Bilbo’s party into Lake-town, the human city at the foot of Smaug’s Lonely Mountain. Bard is an important character in Tolkein’s book for his role in destroying the dragon; for the movie he also takes on the attributes of a political revolutionary, defying Lake-town’s dessolute master (Stephen Fry) and his corrupt functionary (Ryan Gage). Yawn.
And Bilbo gets lost for big chunks of the movie as Jackson zips back and forth between various plot lines.
Like the first film, “Smaug” is a series of action set-pieces joined together by minimal character development. With one or two exceptions, the dwarves are large, interchangeable hairballs. Their leader, Thorin (Richard Armitage), is merely tiresome and cranky this time around. For that matter, even the honorable Ian McKellen gives a perfunctory performance as Gandalf the Wizard…he may have concluded he’s gone to this particular well a bit too often.
What success “The Desolation of Smaug” enjoys comes from its sheer velocity. Jackson has learned at least one lesson — he keeps this episode moving. It’s full of running, riding, and fighting. There’s an imaginative and amusing sequence in which the dwarves escape their elf captors by floating in barrels down a roaring river, all the while fighting off pursuing orcs.
And the last-act appearance of the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is genuinely impressive.
Frequently in this film I found the animation hurried and jerky, practically cartoony (particularly in the case of the orcs), but Smaug is a superb bit of f/x…everything you expect a mighty dragon to be.
”The Desolation of Smaug” ends on a real cliffhanger…now all fans have to do is wait another year to see how it ends.
Or, they could read the book.