With Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage,Evangeline Lilly, Stephen Fry. Written by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro. Directed by Peter Jackson. Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images. 161 minutes.
Full disclosure up front: this critic detests the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, having slogged through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and found the “The Lord of the Rings” movies to be excruciating to watch. The notion of watching the extended versions on DVD sounds like some sort of torture that should be banned under the Geneva Conventions. Then last year’s bloated “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” arrived with a thud. It was with this mindset that this reviewer encountered THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG.
And… I didn’t hate it. It’s not converting me to a fan of elves and dwarves and orcs and hobbits, but considering its running time and that there’s one more film to go, consider it high praise from a vocal non-fan that I wasn’t bored. I can only imagine what true believers will make of it. Try not to burn down the theater when you’re making your sacrifices of gratitude.
Director Peter Jackson (who was also one of several hands on the script), keeps the action focused this time. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is still after the Arkenstone, a priceless jewel that will show he is the rightful heir to be king. Jackson does several things to keep the story moving. The pompous windbag Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) leaves the dwarves and hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) early on in the film. After that we get just a few scenes with him and he does not show up to save the day.
Then Jackson handles two major set pieces with dispatch. The first is a battle in the woods against evil spiders the size of Buicks that ends with the arrival of the elves, led by Legolas (Orlando Bloom). For those of you coming in late, dwarves and elves don’t get along. However among the fighters is Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a fierce fighter, an extremely attractive elf, and – perhaps most important – a character who appears nowhere at all in the Tolkien book. Not surprisingly, she is the most interesting character in the movie.
Meanwhile there’s a second battle on the rapids, this time against the evil orcs. All this is the build up to a terrific third act. This includes the always welcome Stephen Fry as the corrupt Master of Laketown and then the dramatic (if somewhat overlong) battle with Smaug the Dragon. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems to be everywhere these days, Smaug is a truly impressive creation on screen. As fantasy screen battles go, this one is fast-paced and entertaining.
In addition to keeping the action focused and the story moving along, Jackson also gives us time to let the actors develop their characters. The dwarves––who were just a short, hairy mob in the last film––become individuals here, Freeman gets to be a hobbit without the distraction of Andy Serkis’s Gollum, and Lilly breathes some fresh life into the story as Tauriel. The result is that “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is an engaging story that should thrill the hard core fans and even entertain some of the hold outs to the supposed charms of Tolkien, such as this reviewer.
In any case, there’s only one more film, next year’s “The Hobbit: There and Back Again.” After that Jackson is off to make a Tintin movie. So that seven-film epic based on Tolkien’s tax returns or laundry lists or whatever they want to try next is many, many years off. Or so one hopes.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.