Director: Peter Jackson
Studio: New Line Cinema
Stars: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage
You know how middle kids sometimes get the short end of the stick when it comes to gifts and goodies? No such fate befalls The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second of three Middle-earth epics that director Peter Jackson intends to wring out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 300-page children’s book.
No expense has been spared. The 149-minute movie looks like several zillion bucks have been thrown at it and it is, in entertainment terms, a step up from the first Hobbit. Although it delivers one hell of a fire-breathing scene-stealer in its magnificent, malevolent winged title dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, no less), does this thing need to be so poky and padded? It’s not like the plot is convoluted or anything.
Let's break it down: Little Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and fellow wee forest folk (including the dashing Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield) are still slogging along to the mountain home of the reptilian Smaug, with miserable Orcs and snooty-but-pretty elves yapping at their heels. In several splashy 3-D sequences, our diminutive heroes face obstacles that include Tolkien's mammoth spiders, filmed by Jackson in a style that suggests that he still hasn’t finished picking at the carcass of King Kong. At least the dwarves don’t sing this time. They also have the wizened wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to explain everything several times and a right-minded bowman (Luke Evans) to risk his life by helping them. The McGuffin our little heroes are after is the elusive Arkenstone, that precious glowing bauble capable of restoring Oakenshield to his rightful place on the throne. So far as the plot goes, that’s about the size of it. And knowing that, Jackson and company have filled this thing to the gills with throwaway stuff like new character Katniss—oops, we mean Tauriel—the fighting elf (Evangeline Lilly) who makes goo-goo eyes at elfin Kili (Being Human’s Aidan Turner).
Happily, along with the bloat and a tub full of exposition from the screenwriters, there’s fun to be had thanks to delightful performances from the disembodied Cumberbatch and, in the flesh, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom and Stephen Fry. We also get a long, riotous barrel ride river sequence that's just begging to be adapted into an amusement park attraction, like, yesterday. If only more of the movie had that antic, breakneck pace, it’d be easier to stay awake the whole time.