Small Story, Long Journey
Overlong middle chapter redeems itself with lively action, brilliant visuals and intense plot
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Stars: 3 out of 4
At the end of last year's overlong "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," our heroes stood on a high-rise and looked off in the distance at their destination, the Lonely Mountain.
In "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," it takes another two hours (that's five hours of total story time, if you're counting) to finally(!) reach the mountain. Then, after standing around looking for a way in for 10 minutes (no, really) they meet Smaug, a villainous fire-breathing dragon who's so verbose he clearly needs a friend. Perhaps that's why he's desolate.
With the success of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, it's hard to blame co-writer and director Peter Jackson for stretching author J.R.R. Tolkien's "Rings" prequel "The Hobbit" into three films, though even greedy studio execs know that's excessive. Given that "Journey" was a lot of exposition and featured a 45-minute dinner scene showcasing dwarves talking about their feelings, the least Jackson could do was not drag things out more. Yet he has.
However, because "Smaug" includes a number of exciting action sequences and a more purposeful, driven story than its predecessor, we at least can enjoy going along for the ride. Hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman), wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) and 12 other dwarves travel to the lair of Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) so the dwarves can reclaim their land. On the way, they encounter giant spiders, dastardly Orcs, frenemy elves in Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and Bard (Luke Evans), a helpful local in the lake town that borders the mountain.
The film looks fantastic and is screening in 48fps (frames per second running through the projector) in select theaters. That frame rate offers twice the visual clarity and crispness of regular theaters' output. The 24fps 3D screening I saw was wonderfully vivid, with no blurring or headache-inducing effects that look cheap. The production design, costume design and makeup are top notch. The entire film sings with vibrant colors and stunning images, but the real showstopper is a sequence in which the dwarves are escaping down a river in wine barrels as elves and orcs battle around them. The music by Howard Shore, along with Jackson's creativity, pacing and editing make this one of the better action scenes this year.
Visual splendor aside — any time you look at your watch after two hours and are stunned to realize there's still 40 minutes to go, it's a problem. "Smaug" is a sequel that's good enough to keep the "Hobbit" trilogy going strong, but it's nonetheless an unremarkable work with an ending that's still a year away (the ending here is an abrupt cliffhanger, which is understandable). For some, that's part of the fun. For others who may be less patient or more fiscally conservative, renting the first two parts before seeing the third installment in theaters next December might be the way to go.