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‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’: Peter Jackson and company's best yet

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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Peter Jackson has hit a new level of artistic maturity, and his crew have kept right along with him. With "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug", Jackson has ~ if one can imagine such a thing ~ raised his own bar into something to which someone up to the task of creating, oh, say, "The Lord of the Rings" would aspire.

Remember how Gandalf didn’t seem particularly unnerved by the Balrog (inconceivable!), and Legolas seemed to take down that oliphant without breaking much of a sweat? Yeah, well, that’s because they’d already been through all this stuff.

Here we pick up with Thorin and company pressing on toward the Lonely Mountain (and largely without Gandalf, who has been summoned to a mysterious task to the south). Along the way they encounter the requisite gods & monsters, fall subject to Elven King Thranduil of the Woodland Realm, and ultimately face the fang and flame of Smaug himself. (Note: we’re all now apparently pronouncing his name like “Faust” rather than the historical “cause”; the latter seems to better represent the sound of fire-breath, but resistance is futile, just go with it.)

Nice Adaptations and New Faces

There are departures here from the original text, but I would challenge any but the most devoted Tolkien purist to take umbrage with them. Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens know their Middle Earth and honor it completely, and joined this time by Guillermo del Toro, their adaptations serve both story and audience.

This time we’re graced with the return of Orlando Bloom as Legolas Greenleaf, one of the most adored and admired figures of cinema. Though never featured in "The Hobbit", Legolas was mentioned by position, making his presence here a natural bridge between the cinematic trilogies (and we’re so happy about that, thank you team). Where in "Rings" Legolas was cool and elegant, here in "Hobbit" he takes a fiercer demeanor, still elegant but more strapping than lithe. But it works, and we even glimpse a bit of his personal story.

We also meet Tauriel, an altogether new character played by Evangeline Lilly. As Captain of the Elven Guard, Tauriel brings a strong female presence to an otherwise testosterone-driven tale. (Do Dwarves and Elves have testosterone? You get my meaning…) Tauriel’s presence provides the romance of the experience; not in the sense of love story per se (though such is often engaging, and whether or not it’s present here I won’t spoil), but rather the romance that activates the heart, that stirs the soul to pursue the quest. Additionally, since we’re new to the Woodland Realm, the physicality of a female character serves to bring the culture as a whole more fully into view.

And speaking of the Woodland Realm, this time we enjoy a scrumptious dose of King Thranduil, played by Lee Pace. Keep your eye on this one, boy. Only four times in sixteen years of Roller Watching have I been caught by surprise, and this was one of them. (I was deeply moved by his performance in "Soldier’s Girl", but not for one second did it enter my mind here. Sublime.) At first blush Thranduil comes across with that delicate, ethereal Elven androgyny, but by the time we leave the Realm he has unfolded into a powerhouse of the first order, deep-voiced and barrel-chested, a cool King with the heart of a rugby player that any would be fool to cross.

Jackson's Elevated Game

For the rest I’ll just say with one broad stroke that "The Desolation of Smaug" is thrilling, complex, utterly congruent with all that has come before, and bearing mind-numbing action sequences and performances top of game. It's most specially stupendous.

What truly sets this chapter head and shoulders above all that has come before, however, is Jackson’s astonishing command of perspective. What stunned us in "LOTR" ~ the battle of Minas Tirith and its oliphants, the Balrog, the scope of environment, and the physical stature distinctions between peoples ~ all now seem to have been a warm-up.

A "Return of the King" special feature recounts the collision of two oliphants and Jackson’s precision in describing the angle and distance of view. As the art developed it shifted just a bit (hey, it’s a creative process after all), and when the team presented months of work (for eight seconds of footage), he said, “That’s not what I said. Do it again.” And this time they had days left to crank it out. But it’s what he wanted, and it’s perfect. Put them side by side, and you can see why what he envisions is so much better than what we can even imagine.

So that was eight seconds. Now imagine almost three hours. From placing individuals of four races with differences of several feet in height around a dinner table, to fashioning the cavernous kingdom of Erebor, to the gajillion zillions of gold coins in Smaug’s hoard and his emergence from beneath them, every frame elevates Jackson’s already legendary game. And between the showdowns involving Gandalf’s new challenge and our company’s engagement of Smaug, the Balrog ends up looking like a bit of a schoolyard bully.

I’ll probably watch this one 100 times before I die.

Story: Thorin and company press on toward Erebor, falling into the hands of the Elven King of the Woodland Realm, and into the claws of the dragon Smaug himself.

Genre: Action/Adventure, Fantasy

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Aidan Turner, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Jed Brophy, John Callen, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Graham McTavish, Benedict Cumberbatch, Manu Bennett, Lawrence Makoare

Directed by: Peter Jackson (with Andy Serkis as second unit director)

MPAA: PG-13

Running time: 161 minutes (it'll fly by, trust me)

Official site: http://www.thehobbit.com/

Houston release date: December 13, 2013

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings

Screened Dec 10th at the Edwards Marq*E in Houston TX

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