If “An Unexpected Journey” felt like nearly three hours’ worth of throat clearing and beard stroking, the saga gets fully under way at last in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the similarly massive but far more purposeful second chapter in Peter Jackson’s latest Tolkien enterprise. Actually shorter than the first film by nine minutes, this robust, action-packed adventure benefits from a headier sense of forward momentum and a steady stream of 3D-enhanced thrills — culminating in a lengthy confrontation with a fire-breathing, scenery-chewing dragon — even as our heroes’ quest splits into three strands that are left dangling in classic middle-film fashion. Jackson’s gargantuan undertaking can still feel like completist overkill at times, but that won’t keep the Middle-earth enthusiasts who pushed the first “Hobbit” film past the $1 billion mark worldwide from doing the same with this Dec. 13 release, which should see Warners’ and MGM’s coffers overflow like Erebor’s.
Although Jackson’s “Hobbit” pics have maintained an impressive visual continuity with his incomparable “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (technological upgrades like 3D, Imax and high frame rates notwithstanding), the fundamental difference between these two series may be as simple, yet instructive, as the contrasting stories they tell. Whereas the “Rings” movies felt as pure, vital and heroic as the Fellowship’s mission itself, this three-part prequel can’t help but seem like a more mercenary endeavor as it drags out Tolkien’s slender tale of a band of dwarfs seeking to reclaim a lost fortune. Good and evil are still very much at stake, sometimes grippingly so, but even the staunchest Tolkien loyalists may feel they’re on an overly protracted journey to an inevitably less exciting destination.
Still, “The Desolation of Smaug” reps a major improvement on its predecessor simply by virtue of picking up at a more eventful place in the narrative, and as scripted by the returning team of Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro (who was slated to direct at one point during “The Hobbit’s” troubled production history), the film immediately evinces a livelier pace and a heightened sense of urgency. The writers’ key structural innovation here is to incorporate material from “The Quest of Erebor,” one of Tolkien’s supplemental “Unfinished Tales,” starting with a prologue that flashes back to a secret early meeting between the noble dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the gray wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Together these unlikely allies lay out a plan to recover the powerful Arkenstone and reclaim the dwarfs’ underground kingdom from the clutches of the foul dragon Smaug.
Crucial to their success will be the participation of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the mild-mannered but resourceful Hobbit chosen to accompany Gandalf, Thorin and 12 other dwarfs to the Lonely Mountain, as recounted in “An Unexpected Journey.” The story proper resumes with the travelers receiving shelter and supplies from gruff skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) in preparation for their trek through the black forest of Mirkwood. It’s here that Jackson pulls out the first of many stops: When Gandalf departs on a private errand, Bilbo and friends are left to do battle with an army of hideous giant spiders, in a scene so creepily visceral (especially in 3D) that it makes Frodo’s tussle with Shelob in “The Return of the King” look like a romp in the Shire.
The sense of danger rarely flags as the company is rescued and imprisoned by the forces of Thranduil (Lee Pace), haughty king of the Wood-elves and father of a familiar face, the dashing warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reprising his old role with a more impetuous air but the same deadly aim). Middle-earth purists will find plenty of cause for griping here, not merely because Legolas never appeared in the original novel, but because the screenwriters have taken the further liberty of devising an entirely new character, the elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, almost a dead ringer here for Liv Tyler’s Arwen), as a tentative love interest for Kili (Aidan Turner), probably the tallest and most handsome dwarf in Thorin’s party. The problem isn’t that Jackson has dared to tamper with Tolkien’s sacred text, but rather that he has done so to relatively minor effect; although these character additions are meant to up the dramatic stakes and foster a sense of continuity with the “Rings” movies, the emotional gains are minimal.
In pure action terms, the picture’s indisputable high point arrives when Bilbo leads the dwarfs on a daring escape from Mirkwood, floating downriver in barrels while fending off some particularly vicious orcs; it may be a Roaring Rapids-style theme-park ride in the making, but the sequence is thrillingly sustained, orchestrated with a giddy B-movie exuberance that feels like vintage Jackson. From there, things settle down somewhat as the travelers, aided by a wily bargeman (Luke Evans), smuggle themselves into Laketown, a strikingly designed waterfront village that suggests an old English variation on Venice. Overseen by a drunken, venal master (an unkempt Stephen Fry), this once-thriving center of commerce has fallen on hard times since Smaug took over the nearby Lonely Mountain, although the depressed villagers retain their hope in an old prophecy foretelling the dragon’s demise.
At a certain point, “The Desolation of Smaug” becomes a veritable treatise on the different geopolitical factions of Middle-earth: the elves with their hostile, isolationist stance; the humans of Laketown with their desire for prosperity, democracy and ethical governance; and the dwarfs with their yearning for a once-glorious ancestral homeland. It’s weighty, not especially stirring stuff, but necessary insofar as it foreshadows the showdown to come in next year’s “The Hobbit: There and Back Again”; in similar fashion, Gandalf’s secret mission, adapted here from “The Quest for Erebor,” plays a crucial role in anticipating the events of “The Lord of the Rings.”
But the strongest point of connection between this adventure and those yet to come is the Hobbit himself, specifically his growing fascination with the mysterious artifact he acquired in “An Unexpected Journey.” Even at this early stage, the ring’s insidious pull is unmistakable, and Freeman allows a few dark shadings to creep into his otherwise charming embodiment of Bilbo Baggins, whose gradual transformation from reluctant tag-along into stealthy and reliable asset helps sustain viewer engagement through the picture’s occasional laborious stretches. The journey builds to a suspenseful peak as Bilbo finds himself eye-to-eye with the imposing Smaug himself (voiced in seething, unctuous tones by Benedict Cumberbatch), even if their drawn-out confrontation and the dragon’s endless monologues dissipate the tension somewhat en route to the cliffhanger ending.
As ever, in terms of logistical mastery and marshaling of resources in service of a grandly involving bigscreen entertainment, one couldn’t ask for a better ringmaster (so to speak) than Jackson. There’s an unmistakable pleasure in being transported back to his Middle-earth, in being cushioned by the lush strains of Howard Shore’s score and dazzled by the elaborately detailed sets created by production designer Dan Hennah and his team, seamlessly integrating Weta’s topnotch visual effects. Although Andy Serkis’ inimitable computer-aided performance as Gollum goes missing this time around, the actor once again serves as second unit director, as he does on the other two “Hobbit” films as well.
The New Zealand landscapes look as majestic as ever in Andrew Lesnie’s richly textured lensing, which retains all its dreamlike luster in the standard 24-frames-per-second version screened for review. It’s hard to imagine the 48fps version, which drained so much of the magic from “An Unexpected Journey,” doing much to enhance the experience here, especially given the marvelous tactility of the imagery, from the layers of gossamer webs in the spider-attack sequence to the mountains of gold shifting beneath Bilbo’s feet in the Erebor sequence. In these scenes, the immersive, eye-tickling quality of the 3D is especially apparent, though there are also a few in-your-face sight gags — an arrow flying through the screen, a bumblebee hovering close enough to swat away — that exemplify this particular trilogy’s rough-and-tumble spirit.