The Hobbit trilogy continues with its second act. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug finds Bilbo (Martin Freenman), the titular fellow with hairy feet and a fresh, magical ring in his pocket, on his trek to the Lonely Mountain with a significant serving of dwarves and the wise-old wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). The goal remains the same; take back the dwarves homeland from the gold-loving dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).
It’s basic plot, which works best when its being an adventure. Watching director Peter Jackson plop his group of fighters into different scenarios that grow from difficult to insane, with a little madcap thrown in, is a blast. There is a sequence featuring our heroes, sans Gandalf whom is sadly off in his own dull chunk of the movie, barreling down the river in, well, barrels. They are chased by elves and orcs, fighting them off with whatever they happen to find along the way. Jackson stages it all with a sense of, odd as it may sound, realism missing from the first outing of this Tolkien adaptation. We get more than a troop of Middle-Earth guys created out of computers. Dueling with giant beasts and crashing down seemingly endless mines made the character feel artificial. Sure the effects remain noticeable in Smaug, but there’s also a sense of weight and thudding impact running alongside.
A key little addition to Jackson’s latest is a distinction in those characters. Where last year’s outing was basically a hobbit, Gandalf, old dwarf and royal dwarf, Smaug establishes some individualistic personalities to his hodge-podge of bearded folk. By getting this tiny piece of storytelling back in the game, action scenes now feature tension since there is worry about its inhabitants. One can fret over so-and-so’s well-being because one likes so-and-so.
Where The Hobbit misses its mark is in its insistence to be epic, not solely exciting. The aforementioned side-story slides Gandalf out of the way early, leaving a compelling, charismatic character to wander along various dark, stony passages by himself. Fretting over a growing threat that we audience members know will be the possible return of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings is a bit tedious. This isn’t finding out the true sources of how someone grew into a hero/villain/donkey. Jackson and company are playing an uninteresting recipe of fan-service and fear, fear that a bunch of dwarves fighting a dragon isn’t deep enough.
How, you may ask, is said dragon? He’s dragon-y I suppose. Smaug loves gold, like super loves it. Like that bad-guy from the third Austin Powers movie loves it. He calls to mind a cat, with his admiration of naps and shiny thing. The lengthy meeting between Bilbo, still perfectly played by Freeman, and Smaug works. It’s nothing amazing, yet has a unique oddity as Bilbo's minuscule self tries to sweet-talk the behemoth.
For all the clutter which is housed here, there’s maybe enough of an enjoyable romp too. Still a disappointing one by LOTR standards though.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens wide all across Seattle Friday.