The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage. Directed by Peter Jackson. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
It’s still a bad idea to split up the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novel The Hobbit into three movies that run nearly three hours each, but the second installment, The Desolation of Smaug, at least makes a case for giving some of the bigger set pieces time to breathe.
Director Peter Jackson—who previously adapted Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy into three rousing, often brilliant movies—and his longtime co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (plus Guillermo del Toro) add quite a bit to Tolkien’s story in this movie, most notably creating a prominent subplot around an entirely new character. But they also keep the story moving at a quicker pace than they did in last year’s An Unexpected Journey, and they manage to end the movie at a much more suitable point in the story, creating a genuine cliffhanger rather than the halfhearted shrug that ended Journey.
After a quick, unnecessary flashback to wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) convincing dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) to retake the ancestral homeland of his people, the movie returns to that very quest, as Thorin, his 11 mostly interchangeable dwarf companions, Gandalf and timid hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) are still on their way to the dragon-occupied former dwarf kingdom. Gandalf heads off on his own for most of the movie, into a subplot that ties in to the world-threatening menace from the Rings movies (which take place after The Hobbit) and seems to exist solely to make the rather lighthearted Hobbit story as epic and grandiose as Rings.
Although it’s disappointing to see McKellen (whose presence has come to define Jackson’s Tolkien films) sidelined for so much time, his absence does allow Jackson to give the individual dwarves a bit more attention, and he manages to differentiate them a little more effectively than in the first movie. The main addition to the story involves the invention of female elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly of Lost), who ends up in a sort of love triangle with fellow elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom, returning from the Rings movies) and one of the dwarves. The inclusion of a romantic subplot feels like market-tested cynicism (although at least it gives the movie one major female character), but elsewhere, Jackson rediscovers his sense of wonder, especially in an excellent action sequence that finds the dwarves literally barreling down a rushing river.
The climax, a sustained battle between the dwarves and the dragon Smaug (an impressively realized CGI creation), is also well-crafted, as is a creepy sequence featuring giant spiders. Desolation has a greater sense of urgency than Journey did, but it still drags in certain spots, especially during Gandalf’s somewhat ill-defined side mission. And for all its excitement, it still suffers from being all middle, with no real beginning or end. At this point, Jackson is basically just offering another glimpse into his never-ending Middle-earth saga every year. If you’re looking for more, well, here it is