"THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG"
Rating: PG-13 for for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
What a difference a bunch of lackluster reviews make.
Director Peter Jackson apparently was sensitive to the tremors that rippled in his direction after last year's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" landed with a critical thud. The darts were deserved; "Journey was a grim, bloated slog through almost three hours of Talk. Trudge. Fight. Run. Talk. Trudge. Fight. Run. And so on ... and on ... and on.
Still, the movie raked in over $1 billion worldwide, so when it came time to make the follow-up, the studios that paid for it didn't want anything to derail the gravy train. So while "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" doesn't reach the heights of Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy -- it's still flabby in parts and could easily lose 30 minutes without harm -- it's far more engaging and enjoyable than "Unexpected Journey."
Overall, "Smaug" doesn't feel like a 2-hour, 40-minute film, passing by far more jauntily than "Journey" which, honestly, often felt like it was filmed in real time as the dwarves, hobbits and wizards spent weeks walking through the countryside. Most scenes in "Smaug" are shorter; there's more going on to fill the story; and the characters have deepened in personality.
The new film also shows a bit more humor than "Journey," with Jackson embracing some of the more ridiculous tropes of the fantasy genre, including some downright slapstick moments in the fight scenes which, like most big-budget CGI orgies, go on way too long. The one exception is a battle with enormous spiders, which is relatively quick, explosive, very creepy (if spiders creep you out) and all the better for it.
There also is time for actual character development in "Smaug." As Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the dwarves, Richard Armitage maintains the best intense glare in the business while revealing new depths to the character, including doubt, obsession, guilt and fear.
A newly created character, Bard the Boatman (Luke Evans), plays a pivotal role in the film and actually has an intriguing backstory of his own. And Bilbo Baggins becomes more than a tagalong to the plot, saving the dwarves on a couple of occasions and having a pithy back-and-forth conversation with Smaug the evil dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, but you wouldn't know it just by listening). Martin Freeman continues to invest Bilbo with charm, wit and likability.
To broaden the scope of the film (and, let's face it, to pad out the trilogy, too), Jackson and his screenwriters bring back the dreamy, teenage-girl-attracting elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and invent Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) as his elvish fighting partner. Adding the characters is a good thing, though, because it broadens the scope of the film and adds another layer the book didn't have.
The entire "Hobbit" trilogy ties itself to the events in the "Lord of the Rings," which happen about 60 years later but played no role in the original "The Hobbit" novel. Sauron, the villain of "Lord," is just beginning to mass his strength and orc armies in "Smaug," putting all of Middle-earth -- and wizard Gandalf especially -- in peril.
As to be expected, the film is a visual treat. Jackson's obsession with accurate and intricate art direction bring a heightened sense of realism to the home of the Wood Elves, which is all organic swerves and curves, the grimy, gloomy Lake-town, the web-drenched Mirkwood and Erebor, the dwarves' Kingdom Under the Mountain and home to Smaug.
The film's ending is abrupt and reminiscent of the cliffhangers cropping up in recent weeks on TV shows' "Midseason Finales," but that's to be expected since it's setting up the final film, "The Hobbit: There and Back Again," due for release next December. It's hard to envision what Jackson can do to fill another 2 hours and 40 minutes for that film, but let's hope he maintains the same mindset he had when making "Desolation of Smaug."
Contact Shawn Ryan at email@example.com or 423-757-6327.