Last Year on "The Hobbit"...: "Smaug" livelier than last journey but fatally strained

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
161 min., rated PG-13.

Another December, another "Hobbit." After the long but rewarding "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is a lot of movie for being adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's slender book (310 pages, count 'em) that had no reason being stretched like Laffy Taffy into a distended, piecemeal epic trilogy (nine hours, don't count 'em). If 2012's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" was more of a strained, exhausting slog seemingly told in real time and dragged on for an eternity, this second chapter of the same volume is only a vague improvement. It's a little bit swifter, and occasionally livelier and hairier, but instead of advancing the journey or making any of the downtime less dull, director Peter Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Guillermo del Toro can't help themselves, indulgently padding their script with detours that add very little. They tack on newly created characters, and throw in the later trilogy's Legolas (Orlando Bloom), that feel superfluous and solely functional to come in and save the day repeatedly, a contrived, corner-cutting plot device that needs to be retired for these fantasy-adventure films. Maybe once "The Hobbit: There and Back Again" comes around in 2014, all three films will connect as a whole, but on its own and in a vacuum, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is marred by having no proper end. Not only does the film not know when enough is enough, but it places its book mark and closes just as it's finally getting somewhere.

In last year's episode, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and friends were rescued by eagles and taken to safety on a cliff overlooking the distant Lonely Mountain, where, before the film cut to black, the dragon Smaug opened his eye. But instead of "The Desolation of Smaug" immediately beginning where "An Unexpected Journey" left off, a flashback set in the Shire town of Bree has Gandalf (Ian McKellen) meeting up with Thorin in the Prancing Pony tavern before setting out to reclaim Thorn's jewel called the Arkenstone. After that needless introduction, they're in medias res to defeat the fire-breathing dragon Smaug, Bilbo being their burglar and, unbeknownst to the wizard and dwarves, still holding onto that precious One Ring that gives him the ability to go invisible during perilous situations. This time, while still being pursued by the Orcs who want Thorin's head, they run afoul of the horrors residing in the darkly ominous Mirkwood forest; become imprisoned by elves; and later meet Bard (Luke Evans), a grim-faced bowman who lives in Lake-town next to the mountain. For Pete's sake, can't they just call those eagles back to fly them to the Lonely Mountain already?

For the bulk of its shameless, taxing 161-minute running time, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is never short on incident but never hits a consistent stride in moving forward. As the slight narrative rebelliously spins its wheels, it's as if our heroes are trudging through quicksand and their destination just keeps getting farther and farther. Then again, the film isn't entirely all for naught, often perking up with a show-stopping set-piece or two and finding a formidable, photorealistic antagonist in Smaug. Welcome exceptions to this long-winded journey include a sense of doom in the hallucinatory forest and a creepy near-death encounter with menacingly realized arachnids. Somewhere in the middle, there's also a fun, skillfully choreographed set-piece where Bilbo and the dwarves all escape the Elf Kingdom in barrels, drifting down river rapids and fighting off Orcs with the help of bow-and-arrow-wielding elves. (A theme park ride in the making?) It's a busy sequence of cheeky, thrilling derring-do, in the way Legolas hops on top of the dwarves' heads while retaining his sharp-shooting aim, and a few Orc decapitations don't hurt, either. At last, when Bilbo inadvertently awakens the fumed Smaug under a cavern of gold coins, their showdown is a spectacular centerpiece, but why start it at the 130-minute mark? Using his deep, growling voice for the anthropomorphic Smaug, Benedict Cumberbatch embodies true darkness and it's no mean feat that the computer-generated rendering of his dragon counterpart is actually quite imposing.

Not even a layman will be left wanting from Jackson's reliably seamless technical specs and gorgeously vast Middle-earth landscapes, but they're all left to be window dressing in a machine without much of a motor. Everyone in the cast marches through the paces, too, and the barely distinguishable dwarf characters have even less personality this time around. It's another telling error when every dwarf can miraculously dodge death at every turn, lessening the danger factor and one's reason to care what happens to any of them. Invented for the film, the only female that's given the most proactive action is Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), an elf who's a great shot with a bow and arrow and a possible love interest for dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and Legolas. At this point, Jackson's inferior "The Hobbit" doesn't offer the same wonder and emotional impact to be uttered in the same breath as his "The Lord of the Rings." We're only in the middle, and this Middle-earth saga is already looking middling at best, unfortunately.

Grade: C +