The Hobbit lives …
In the wake of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” last year’s dreary, dense, disappointing slough through Middle-earth, “The Desolation of Smaug” comes as a relief. Peter Jackson’s newest installment of the Tolkien trilogy is set afire by the scorching roar of a dragon.
That would be Smaug, a wicked, wily creature voiced by a wicked-in-his-own-right Benedict Cumberbatch. The scaly villain slithers around insinuating that the dwarfs have double-crossing in mind. Perish the thought.
Perishing — or not — certainly is a major theme in “Smaug.” Jeopardy done well, as it is here, serves to keep everything, and everyone, on edge, including the visual-effects folks who must have worked overtime perfecting the perils that the dwarfs and our Hobbit hero face.
The evil Orcs with their weird eyes and scarred bodies are always fearful, but they return in greater force and with better strategies. The wood-elves with their pointy ears and pointy ideals are still under the direction of the isolationist Thranduil (Lee Pace) and still not to be toyed with. There are all manner of other terrors, like the hordes of giant spiders skittering about. I admit I jump at the garden variety, but did they really need so many 3-D teeth when they’re already so tall?
Speaking of fabulous effects — and there are far too many to mention — for those wondering if the technology debate about Jackson’s use of 48-frames-per-second projection on the first film continues — yes and no. Most screens will feature the 3-D film at the traditional 24 frames per second, which is what I was shown. But for anyone interested, the studio is nearly doubling the number of theaters that will offer it at the far faster 48 frames.
Fortunately for “Smaug,” the storytelling trumps the technology. Jackson’s latest go at Tolkien’s treasured “Hobbit” story gets closer to that rich alchemy of fantasy, adventure, imagination and emotion that made his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy such a triumph.
Although “Smaug” is not quite as golden as the best of “The Rings,” the film is infused with an eccentricity and electricity that keep most of its nearly three hours humming. A comfort, since I don’t think many of us could have weathered another bad outing for the beloved Bilbo Baggins.
Martin Freeman has found his, ahem, footing in “Smaug” as well. The British actor does a lovely job this time with the self-deprecating, middle-aged Hobbit. Bilbo’s growing confidence and courage, with a bit of help from the “precious” ring he snatched from Gollum’s cave in the first, helps lift the spirit of the film.
The other central players are back as well, led by Gandalf the Grey, the wizard in the steady hands of Ian McKellen as he has been from the beginning. Richard Armitage continues to give his dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield a seductive strength; the struggle with what royalty requires remains at his core. His band of 12 is anchored by the conscience of the group, Balin (Ken Stott). In fact the acting across the board is rock-solid.
For all that is familiar in “Smaug,” much of the pleasure of the film comes from the risks Jackson takes, starting with the story. It is crafted by the same team that wrote the first — Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro. But unlike “An Unexpected Journey,” so weighed down by reverence to the source material, “The Desolation of Smaug” goes its own way.
Consider one of the boldest strokes. The return of “The Rings” wood-elf warrior Legolas marks the return of actor Orlando Bloom to the fold, always a good choice. Legolas is as deft with a bow as ever, though slightly distracted by a brash and beautiful warrior princess, which may have the male-centric Tolkien spinning in his grave. But no matter, it’s about time the Hobbit had more of a woman’s touch.
Tauriel, played by an excellent Evangeline Lilly, is as fierce as they come, though as it happens, she’s a bit bewitched by the charms of one of Thorin’s band, a tallish dwarf named Kili (Aidan Turner). Their romantic attraction is responsible for some of “Smaug’s” sizzle, and some surprising sweetness.
“The Desolation of Smaug” essentially follows Thorin’s quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain, the dwarfs’ ancestral home and the place where they minted golden treasures. He also wants Bilbo to find, and nab, the Arkenstone, the so-called heart of the mountain and an Oakenshield family heirloom. Smaug, who has settled into the bowels of Lonely Mountain, stands as a major obstacle.
Though as dwarf journeys go, this is a demanding one. It will require fighting off the Orcs, forging an alliance with the shape-shifter Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), negotiating the deadly Mirkwood forest, extricating themselves from the wood-elves’ clutches, persuading Bard (Luke Evans) to ferry them across to Lake-town, outwitting Lake-town’s master (Stephen Fry) and getting to the foot of the Lonely Mountain. Getting inside is yet another challenge. Getting out alive an even dicier one.
As that suggests, the pace is frenetic. There are a few action sequences that go on a bit long, but the emotional arcs are as well placed as any of Legolas’ arrows. And if you know anything about Tolkien’s work, you know that is saying a lot.
‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy-action violence, and frightening images
Running time: 2 hours, 41 minutes
Playing: In select theaters Thursday night; in general release Friday