Even fans of last year’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” had to admit there were problems.
The pacing was off, the humor often fell flat and the much-vaunted “high frame rate” was more distracting than realistic. There was still much to admire about Peter Jackson’s return to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, but it wasn’t up to the standards he had set for himself with his “Lord of the Rings” adaptations.
Apparently, he was saving all his energy for “The Desolation of Smaug.” The second entry in Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy is nimble and exciting, with immersive visuals to rival anything in his previous efforts. From the twisted darkness of Mirkwood Forest to the sparkling beauty of a giant gold statue, Jackson makes sure viewers feel as if they’ve stepped into another world (with or without 3-D).
Plus, it has a spectacular dragon. Who doesn’t love that?
Jackson (co-writing with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro) pulls us right into the action, as Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his companions continue their journey to reclaim the ancient dwarf kingdom of Erebor.
Within the first hour, they’ve met raging shape-shifter Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) and been attacked by terrifying giant spiders. They’re also still being stalked by the Orcs from the first movie, who are determined to destroy dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage).
While Gandalf (Ian McKellen) embarks on his own mission (which will be very important later), Bilbo and the dwarves find themselves in another elf haven, albeit a much less friendly one than their previous refuge of Rivendell. Led by the haughty King Thranduil (Lee Pace), the woodland elves imprison our heroes and refuse to help with Thorin’s quest.
Their lone voice of dissent comes from Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly of TV’s “Lost”), a character invented for the film, who fears that her people’s isolationism will lead to disaster.
She also takes a liking to handsome young dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), which upsets Thranduil’s son, our old “Rings” friend Legolas (Orlando Bloom). Suddenly, we have a love triangle, and Jackson’s only serious misstep. Although Legolas doesn’t appear in print until the “Rings” trilogy, his inclusion in this prequel makes sense, since it was Tolkien himself who made him a prince of the woodland realm.
Even Tauriel’s presence is welcome, since there are NO women in “The Hobbit” as written. Lilly was born to play an elf, and she’s at her best when Tauriel gets to be a morally authoritative warrior. Unfortunately, she wastes a lot of time worrying about cute boys when she should be killing Orcs and arguing with Thranduil. This isn’t “Twilight.” Nobody cares who Legolas is taking to the prom.
As always in Middle-earth, there is still hope. “Desolation of Smaug” gets back into gear when the company arrives at a beautifully detailed Lake-town and, finally, Erebor.
The dragon Smaug (voiced and motion-captured by Benedict Cumberbatch) is everything an audience could hope for, and his confrontation with Bilbo is scary and thrilling. Tolkien’s dragons are smart, and Smaug is as much an egotistical sociopath as he is a fire-breathing menace. Once the battle for the treasure hoard commences, it drags on about 20 minutes too long, but it’s too much fun to complain about.
By the end, the only real frustration is that it’s over already, with a cliffhanger that guarantees an even faster ride when “There and Back Again” comes out next December. With any luck, there won’t be time for clumsy romantic interludes. Everyone — including Tauriel — has world-saving to do.