Now that’s more like it.
After a long, lackluster first act, Peter Jackson’s three-part retelling of J. R. R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel “The Hobbit” finally gets interesting with part two: “The Desolation of Smaug.” Everything’s better with a dragon.
A brief recap: A group of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) are on a quest to reclaim their castle in the far-off Lonely Mountain. Said castle, and all the riches within, are currently the property of a dragon named Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Joining the dwarves on this adventure are Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a hobbit, and Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), a wizard.
When we left the group at the end of part one, giant eagles had just rescued them from a band of orcs and left them on a mountain about halfway from their goal. Why didn’t the eagles just fly them to the Lonely Mountain? Well, that’s like asking why didn’t the eagles just fly Frodo to Mount Doom and save us all about 9 hours of film from the last series. The eagles are helpful, but not too helpful.
After an encounter with a were-bear, Gandalf leaves the crew to go off on his own mission. Usually this means the dwarves will be captured soon only to be rescued at a dramatic moment by Gandalf. But this time the wizard really does go off for a separate adventure and Bilbo and his buddies are left to fend for themselves.
It’s not long before they’re almost eaten by giant spiders, captured by elves and chased by orcs. They do eventually make it to Mount Lonely where they face the biggest challenge of all — its seemingly indestructible, fire-breathing landlord.
“The Desolation of Smaug” is a big step up from last year’s “An Unexpected Journey.” The action is faster, more furious and more fun (One of the film’s highlights is an outrageous chase scene involving elves, orcs and dwarves in barrels). The characters are more engaging. The return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is a welcome sight and the addition of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) brings interesting new blood to the story. The special effects, set designs and cinematography are of the same high standard you’d expect from the franchise.
What’s thankfully missing are the silly song bits, the long stretches of exposition (for the most part) and repetitive nature (dwarves get in trouble, Gandalf saves them) of part one.
But the best development of part two is the introduction of the villain — Smaug. Finally, a bad guy with more personality and heft than a giant, glowing eye. I was afraid there wouldn’t be much dragon action this time around, that Jackson would save most of that for the finale but it turns out Smaug gets some decent screen time here.
“The Desolation of Smaug” is thrilling, chilling, compelling, fun and — as usual — bloated. Sure, it’s still way too long but we all know by now that Jackson isn’t going to deliver a Middle Earth movie in under (or close to) two hours so we’ll just have to live with it. At least for one more movie.