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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - Wow! Every day IS a winding road!

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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"Bilbo the silly hobbit started this affair, and Bilbo had better finish it, or himself."

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---Tolkien---

And Uncle Mikey, the silly film critic, should've known better than try to see a movie in a theater across the street from a shopping mall during the Christmas season. Joy to the world my big fat hiney!

But you pumpkins don't care a candy cane about the Unksters personal problems. You're dreaming of holly and mistletoe and hobbits roasting on an open fire, so I'd better get to it and talk about Peter Jackson's latest . . . um . . . epic.

Speaking of Great Untold Stories, I wish I'd been in the room when Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo del Toro were chopping up Tolkien's "The Hobbit" into thirds, and I hope the DVD will provide the straight scooby on its commentary track.

(Uncle Mikey Makes A Prediction: when "The Hobbit" trilogy wraps up there's going to be a whacking big DVD box set featuring not only "The Hobbit" but remastered editions of "The Lord of the Rings". And, as part of the price, the set will be hand-delivered to you by a Ringwraith.)

I mean: basic fact here. If you really liked "An Unexpected Journey" then you'll like "The Desolation of Smaug". More of the same. But as I watched it I was getting a sort of vibe of something being stretched to uncomfortable limits. By that I mean it seemed that Jackson & Co. were having trouble deciding where to end part-2 and what to leave for part-3. Not wanting to risk spoilers I'll say that I was surprised at the point where "Desolation" ended. Imagine, for example, if "Gone With the Wind" ended right after Melanie's baby was born, or if "The Wizard of Oz" ended right after Dorothy and the others set off to whack the Wicked Witch.

But holy Crom! "Desolation" was over two and half hours long as it was (and a further memo to myself: take my pain meds before going to a theater. Or at least before I go see the next installment of this series). When a long movie feels like a long movie then there's obviously a problem somewhere. I understand Jackson's decision to pad out "The Hobbit" to where it could fit into three films. But whereas the padding in "An Unexpected Journey" served a purpose, in "Desolation" the padding had the feel of being contrived, and almost clumsily so.

I'll get into more detail in a bit but, first, some background material. As you remember from last time our intrepid band of space castaways . . . ah, I mean Bilbo and the Dwarves . . . left Hobbiton on their way to the Lonely Mountain. By the time "An Unexpected Journey" ended, Our Heroes were at the edge of Mirkwood.

So "Desolation" gives us the trip through Mirkwood, then the arc where Our Heroes are captured by the Wood Elves, then the arrival in Lake Town and then, finally, the trip into the Lonely Mountain and the first meeting with Smaug the dragon. Meanwhile the dwarves are still being pursued by Azog, and Gandalf's sneaking around Dol Guldur trying to figure out the identity of the Necromancer (as if enough BIG WHACKING CLUES weren't already laying around). By the time the end credits were rolling my feet were hurting, and I hadn't even left my seat.

As I said, if you really enjoyed "An Unexpected Journey" then you'll have fun with "Desolation". The acting's consistent, only there's not as much of it as there was in the previous film. I mean to say: Martin Freeman's still raises a smile as Bilbo, Ian McKellan plays Gandalf as good as he plays Magneto, and, as Thorin Oakenshield, Richard Armitage continues to fear no evil as he walks through the Valley of Death because he is the baddest SOB in the valley.

But "Desolation" has a lot of extra characters squeezed into it, and it almost reaches the point where one wishes for a scorecard to keep track. It's also a problem because I happen to not only be a film critic, but an old film critic. Which means I remember the animated version of "The Hobbit" which was made by Rankin-Bass in 1977. Which means I remember Otto Preminger as the voice of Thranduil the Elvenking, and Richard Boone as the voice of Smaug. Both effectively dramatic (and it should be noted that Rankin-Bass brought "The Hobbit" in at 77 minutes).

By comparison, Lee Pace's Thranduil had a nice bit of eerieness about him, but he was definitely no Cate Blanchett. I'm inclined to cut Pace a bit of slack, however, because he's been tapped to play Ronan in the upcoming "Guardians of the Galaxy", and you don't cast wussies to portray Kree Public Accusers.

(Knock on mithril.)

Benedict Cumberbach was . . . well, nice . . . as the voice of Smaug. But I kept watching (and listening) throughout his scenes and couldn't help but recall the genuine thunder Richard Boone brought to the 1977 version. Seamless CGI and motion capture is all very well and good, but a bit more of Rankin-Bass' sturm und drang would've gone a long way with this.

Elsewhere?

Yeah, the padding. In order to stretch "Desolation" out, Jackson and his merry bandits not only delved back into Tolkien's Appendix, but went so far as to add two storylines. First we're given a romantic triangle between dwarf Kili (played by Aidan Turner with overtones of Timothy Dalton), Tauriel (a female elf, and Wonder Woman wannabe, played rather convincingly by Evangeline Lilly) and our old friend Orlando Bloom as Legolas. Yeah! The audience is obliged to sit through way too much (in my opinion) of Lilly giving long, lingering looks to Turner while, at the same time, Assessing Her Relationship with Legolas. All this accompanied by a great deal of bowplay and sword fighting.

("I enjoy long walks in the woods" . . . hack, slash, stab . . . "and the feel of rain on my face" . . . gouge, gouge, gouge . . . "and intimate sips of beer in front of a cozy fire while reading typically long Elven poetry" . . . whack, whack, whackity whack.)

(And no, that's not actual dialogue from the film. But there were moments when I wished I could just tap Jackson on the shoulder and tell him to take himself and his friends out for brioche while I tightened things up a bit.)

Another plotline occurs while in Lake Town, and we're treated to a drearingly over-extended bit regarding the corrupt politics which are running (and ruining) the town. Small tidbit of advice to Jackson: when filming an action-adventure film you don't suddenly switch to "Advise and Consent". Especially if you can't give us Charles Laughton in Middle-Earth garb.

As I said, I understand the need for stretching things out a bit. But the above mentioned arcs were allowed to bloom (no pun intended) at the cost of other, more canonical material. As an example: the scene with Mikael Persbrandt as Beorn (last of the shape-shifting Beornings) was one of the most well-constructed bits in the film. Unfortunately it wasn't as long as it could've been. Ditto (at least in my opinion) the battle with the spiders in Mirkwood.

Still, it can be said that "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is now under our belts and behind us, and we can finally look forward to "There and Back Again". This should by rights be far more epic and entertaining than "Desolation". At the very least Jackson shouldn't be making the audience work as hard as it did with this film.

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