A Sequel by Force of ‘Hobbit’
While a marked improvement from its predecessor, “The Hobbit:
The Desolation of Smaug” is still a case of too much with too little.
The second exceptionally long installment in a new trilogy from director Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings”), “Smaug” covers some of the more memorable highlights from J.R.R. Tolkien’s celebrated tale, while adding beaucoups of original material to pad out the proceedings.
Fortunately, most of this material works, complementing the more expansive storyline Jackson established with the first film, 2012’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
Whereas “Unexpected Journey” was a practically a three-hour-long setup, “Smaug” hits the Middle-Earth running and seldom lets up. The film is marked by some standout action sequences — an absurdly fun barrel ride down a raging river, for one — and brilliant special effects — the titular Smaug is a computer-generated sight to behold.
Yet even so, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this could’ve been something better had Jackson and company exercised some restraint. A roughly nine-hour trilogy based on a 300-page book feels excessive, but we could do worse. At the very least, that’s nine more hours fans can spend in Tolkien’s fantastic world, one brought vividly to life by a filmmaker who clearly loves his craft.
“Smaug” returns us to the precarious predicament of hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, BBC’s “The Office”) and his 13 dwarven companions, led by deposed king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, “Captain America: The First Avenger”).
The band is seeking to claim Thorin’s royal birthright, a precious gem called the Arkenstone, from the depths of his people’s former kingdom under the Lonely Mountain, which has since been overtaken by a fire-breathing dragon, called Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, BBC’s “Sherlock”).
But first, they’ll have to overcome some hefty obstacles, one of which, by default, is a fire-breathing dragon. But to reach him, they’ll have to navigate the malevolent forest of Mirkwood, with or without the blessing of the enigmatic wood elves, to later cross a great lake and find the secret entrance into the mountain.
However, their guide, wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, “X-Men”), has parted ways on urgent business, seeking to uncover the mystery of a necromancer at a long-abandoned fortress. As such, the company is left to its own devices, which almost proves disastrous, were it not for Bilbo’s tenacity — and a certain magical ring.
“Smaug” works best with Tolkien’s original material, and longtime fans will find plenty to enjoy in these visualized sequences. But the additional material is also enjoyable, with Jackson and company introducing an all-new character — wood elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, “Real Steel”) — that fits well enough into the already established mythology.
Fan favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom, “Pirates of the Caribbean”) also makes an appearance, as does an unexpected love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel and dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner, TV’s “Being Human”).
Compared to “Unexpected Journey,” “Smaug” also strikes a better balance in tone. A major problem with the first was that Jackson aimed to make a “Lord of the Rings” prequel, rather than a standalone feature. As such, the dark, grave tone of “Rings” clashed with the happy-go-luckiness of “The Hobbit,” resulting in a film that featured an unspeakable evil, a whacky wizard with smoke blowing out of his ears, fiery death and a singing goblin.
Tonally, “Smaug” strikes a better balance. But “The Hobbit,” inherently, doesn’t stack up to the epic stature of “Lord of the Rings,” which practically defined the fantasy genre as we know it. This is made all the more apparent by the fact our titular hobbit has surprisingly little screen time.
Clearly, Jackson is still in “Lord of the Rings” mode, making this trilogy seem less a necessity and more a force of hobbit.
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, visit http://www.mountaintimes.com/movies.