“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” doesn’t need any more hype or positive critical ink than it has already received. To nobody’s surprise, this Big Holiday Movie opened strongly at the box office this weekend, and it will likely continue to draw young and old into the theater for the rest of this year. It’s better than its immediate predecessor and even a tad shorter, praise be.
Director Peter Jackson still lets it run too long — almost three hours — but there are fewer lulls and not nearly as much repetitive talk. He and his fellow screenwriters take considerable liberties with J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel, stretching out the action scenes and even adding a bit of romance, perhaps to spice up and vary the proceedings. Viewers such as yours truly may be confused by some of the references to characters and places, not having read the book. And Jackson leaves the audience hanging at the end, setting up for the last installment, due out next holiday season.
All that said, this is an enjoyable movie, one that earns its “PG-13” rating with some fairly graphic fantasy violence that could cause parents to rethink taking the very youngest spouts to see it. There are stabbings, bashings over the head, and even beheadings; besides that, some of the bad guys may be nightmare-inducing. OK, so kids no longer have visions of sugar plums dancing in their dreams, but Orcs and dragons may not be preferable.
The action picks up with Gandalf the Grey (the estimable Ian McKellen) meeting Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) in an inn and calling on him to retake Erebor, the homeland of the dwarves. It has been usurped by a fire-breathing dragon named Smaug, who lies buried in gold and treasure, including the Arkenstone, a vital piece of the restoration of the kingdom to its proper inhabitants. Along with the bravery, endurance, and just plain pluck that the quest demands of Thorin and his not-so-merry band of dwarves, they require a burglar to steal the shiny white stone. Luckily, there’s one to hand in the diminutive person of Bilbo Baggins, winsomely played again by Martin Freeman. Even more fortunate is that he possesses a precious ring that renders the wearer invisible — a very big deal when you’re confronting huge spiders or a giant, fire-breathing dragon.
Their adventures on the journey to a secret door into a faraway mountain involve encounters with various monsters, most notable the hideous Orcs, who have a pronounced taste for dwarf blood. They make a tenuous alliance with the elves, most notably the handsome prince Legolas (the beautiful Orlando Bloom) and the striking commoner Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), both of them ace archers and martial arts whizzes. The little guys even secure the grudging aid of a human smuggler named Bard (Luke Evans) to get them across a lake and, thence, to the magic mountain with its resident scaly usurper, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch with appropriate menace.
The production design, art direction, computer graphics, and cinematography again combine to make this a stunning visual treat, and Howard Shore’s musical score nicely mirrors the action in the fashion of older films. It could use a few more dashes of humor to enliven and lighten the action. “The Desolation of Smaug” suffers from cinematic overkill, but that will not likely deter its legions of fans from seeing and reseeing it.