It’s not Peter Jackson’s fault; the original Hobbit novel was written on a much smaller scale than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Audiences accustomed to enjoying sweeping expanses, continental warfare, and the struggle between good and evil only get a pack of dwarves, one hobbit, a dash of Gandalf the wizard, and a couple elves. The One Ring to rule them all is still around but it is employed only for its practical application of invisibility rather than a soul-crushing burden. The middle film of The Hobbit trilogy neither overwhelms nor disappoints, it’s a fine placeholder.
There are a few distinguishing characteristics separating The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, an unnecessarily choppy title when you say it out loud, from its older brother, last year’s An Unexpected Journey. First, there is a lot more overt 3D use. Bees buzz off the screen toward you, arrows zip from bows with you as the target, and some gigantic spiders get much closer than you would ever want them to be in real life. Second, there is a lot of humor, far more one-liner laugh lines and quirky orc deaths designed to elicit a chuckle than anything you remember from the days of the Fellowship. Also, there is a developing love story subplot between a dwarf and an elf; it’s good to see that barrier is finally being challenged I suppose.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and crew continue their march toward the dwarves’ old mountain home; you know, the one with the huge, fire-breathing dragon in it, Smaug himself. They are relentlessly pursued by a never-ending supply of orcs who while they carry fearsome weapons, employ the fighting skills and accuracy of storm troopers. Enormous spiders, uppity elves, and corrupt humans are the main obstacles between our vertically-challenged heroes and their destiny with a flying reptile (voiced by a bass-infused Benedict Cumberbatch) they would do well enough to leave alone.
Dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is the leader, but it seems even smaller Bilbo, who somehow disappears every time the band is captured, is the one who always saves the day. Bilbo is also the short straw puller to be the one who gets to go in alone to find a stone most likely guarded by a very sleepy dragon. Smaug gets some long speeches and eye-rolling pronouncements of doom and despair, but this guy is a visual effects masterpiece. He floats around the room, his voice peals like thunder, and he hates him some dwarves.
Compared to the obvious effort it took to construct Smaug, the dwarf height continuity seems off. When Thorin sits with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) or as he confronts wood elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace), there is just something off with these scenes. As a dwarf, Thorin is required to appear a few feet shorter than everyone else, but there are times when Peter Jackson really tries to force the issue. This is a minor quibble compared to what we get though, the best action sequence of the year.
There are a bunch of dwarves, each in their own barrel, riding some whitewater rapids down a river while an orc army attacks them from the river banks and two circus acrobatic elves, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), somersault and superhero leap from river bank, to barrel, to tree branch, to orc head helping to protect the dwarves. There truly is no better action scene in our year 2013; the film is worth the 3D price of admission just for this pleasure alone. Speaking of Tauriel, this elf character with significant screen time is not in the book. She adds a large dose of melodrama that may or may not sit well with Hobbit fanboy purists.
The Desolation of Smaug is superior to The Hobbit’s first installment. An Unexpected Journey was forced to go through introductions and team trust exercises. This year, we get those spiders, extremely snobbish elves, and the most impressive dragon you will have ever seen at the movies. Temper your expectations though; it is no Return of the King.