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Movie review: Smaug breathes some much-needed fire into the second 'Hobbit' film

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


It’s the second chapter in the bloated, overlong Hobbit trilogy of films, following last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. In The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (opening today), Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf and their assortment of unmemorable and indiscernible dwarven friends finally arrive at the realm of the evil dragon Smaug.

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Talk about your long walk to freedom. J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit was only one book after all, now stretched on the big screen to what will be nearly nine hours when all is said and done, over three very long films (the final chapter in the saga, There and Back Again, will be in theaters this time next year). Director Peter Jackson has borrowed from other works of Tolkein to fill out the characters and story, but he has also created much anew.

The biggest - and perhaps the most controversial among hardcore fans - is the addition in this film of the elven warrior, Tauriel. The tough elf maiden, played by Evangeline Lilly, is a character Jackson has created for the movies and is not a character that has ever appeared in the work of Tolkein. Her storyline in this second film allows for the re-introduction of the popular Legolas (Orlando Bloom), a favorite character that was featured heavily in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The whole Tauriel/Legolas elf story seems shoe-horned into The Desolation of Smaug, but so does everything else. For what it's worth, Tauriel seems like a welcome addition to the world. The same cannot be said for the stiff performance by Orlando Bloom, whose Legolas now seems even more wooden and lifeless than ever before. Even his face - caked in make-up it seems - makes you wonder why the digital wizards working with Jackson couldn't have made him look the same as he did in the Rings movies.

Quibbles aside, this second chapter is a much improved, more complete film than the first installment. I still couldn't tell a Nori from a Gloin from Bofur, but I know that there is that old one, that leader guy and that younger fellow. Jackson doesn't disappoint with his amazing visuals, which somehow seems to be directed in a slightly more reigned in style compared to the first film. And that's a good thing. Smaug is an impressive achievement (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) and is the coolest dragon the big screen has ever seen.

Though a lot seems to happen over the course of three hours, very little actually does of any real consequence. Still things move along swimmingly, an orchestra of distractingly pleasant sequences that acts as sort of Baby Einstein for can just be sat in front of it for a while without the fear of boredom setting in. Of course, the stage is set for the final chapter in which we hold out hope that, finally, something may actually happen.

A big overall gripe with these films is that the stakes are never as high as they were in The Lord of the Rings. We know things turn out all right. Not having read the books originally, the movies were a breath-taking, high-stakes adventure where anything could seemingly happen. But who now hasn't seen the Rings movies? We now have the foresight to know that nothing that happens in The Hobbit trilogy will undue where things eventually end up going in the Rings trilogy.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a marked improvement over the last film, but it still isn't nearly as good as any of The Lord of the Rings movies. An unfair comparison perhaps, but an inevitable one. Still, that won't keep hordes of fans from swarming theaters. It's just that we've seen brilliance exist within Middle Earth before, so when mediocrity rears its ugly head, you can't help but feel a slight twinge of disappointment.

Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Drama

Run Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, Rated PG-13

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Luke Evans

Directed by Peter Jackson (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the Lord of the Rings trilogy)

Opens locally on Friday, Dec 13, 2013 (check for show times).

Be sure to watch Tom Santilli on TV! Check your local listings for “Movie Show Plus” for Tom’s weekly movie review segment, airing at 10:30 p.m. EST every Sunday, on MYTV20 in Detroit.

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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"

  • 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
  • 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
  • 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
  • 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
  • 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time

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