The issues dogging “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” are the same problems that dogged “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” one year ago: too many characters, not enough story, at least 45 minutes longer than it needs to be.
The upside about “Desolation” is that, much like another second-film-based-on-a-series-of-books movie currently tearing up the box office this season, “Desolation” rights a lot of the first movie’s wrongs.
For starters, the movie doesn’t really dawdle the way “An Unexpected Journey” did. It’s pretty much a 2½-hour long adventure movie, nimbly bouncing from one action scene to the next as Bilbo and the gang continue their journey to Lonely Mountain to retrieve something called the Arkenstone, which the 13 dwarves Bilbo is traveling with need to ensure Thorin (Richard Armitage) can regain the throne and bring peace back to Middle-earth. The action usually stems from the virtually nonstop battle sequences, in which the dwarves are confronted by Orcs, giant spiders and seriously pissed off elves.
Beginning with a cameo by director Peter Jackson, the new “Hobbit” establishes itself as a more playful movie than the first “Hobbit,” which is evidenced in one truly terrific sequence that places all 14 protagonists inside wobbly barrels as they float down a rapid-filled stream while Orcs, elves and Mother Nature simultaneously threaten to do each other in.
After two hours of foreplay, the movie finally reaches its crescendo when Smaug, the sleepy dragon who harbors the Arkenstone as well as millions of beautifully imagined gold coins in his mountain lair, is introduced in a battle of wits with Bilbo, which is about as exciting as Bilbo’s initial meeting with Gollum in the first “Hobbit” last December (sadly, Gollum does not appear in “Desolation,” not that he is missed).
As voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who has played a villain in three of the five movies he participated in this year, Smaug is a worthy adversary for the more-clever-than-he-lets-on Bilbo (Martin Freeman, who co-stars with Cumberbatch on TV’s “Sherlock”). Their initial encounter occurs a full two hours into “Desolation,” at which point your interest is re-piqued and left hanging, I’m afraid, because the movie ends on one of those “See ya next Christmas!” cliffhangers that also echoes the way the makers of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” ended their film last month.
“Desolation” also signals the return of Legolas the elf, played even more broodingly than usual by Orlando Bloom, and somehow, Jackson has even made room for a new character not seen in J.R.R. Tolkien’s original children’s novel, another elf named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) whose presence sets up a romantic element not seen since the original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy a decade ago.
As much fun as “Desolation of Smaug” often is, the movie, alas, is not completely satisfying. There are still about a dozen characters too many to contend with, many of whom are so tangential that I couldn’t even tell them apart. Too often, that edges Bilbo and Gandalf (Ian McKellan) onto the sidelines for much of the action, making them feel like supporting characters in their own film.
The dialogue scenes in “Desolation” also haven’t gotten less snoozy in the dozen years since “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Honestly, if I have to sit through another five minute-long conversation between two characters who speak in breathy poetic gibberish, I’m going to fall asleep.
For the most part, though, “Desolation of Smaug” is a vast improvement over the meandering “Unexpected Journey,” a movie I’m sure not too many people revisited the way they did Jackson’s original three. It still has it’s problems (I can’t speak on the quality of the 48-frames-per-second version, but I can’t imagine it’s improved, either), but it is a step in the right direction. And, if the movie’s cliffhanger ending is any indication, the “Hobbit” trilogy is merely on the cusp of getting good.
★★½ (out of ★★★★)
Rated PG-13 for fantasy action violence. 161 minutes. 2013.
Director: Peter Jackson. Starring: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage.