|‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’
Nearly everything about “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” represents an improvement over the first installment of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved creation. Part two is almost entirely devoted to the dangerous expedition of thirteen dwarves recruited by the wizard Gandalf with the aim of reinstating Thorin Oakenshield to his rightful place as monarch of the underground kingdom of Erebor, lost in the devastating battle that opened the first film. Although dangers lurk every step of the way - even more than exist in the book - the one looming over all is Smaug, a huge dragon that lives deep in the bowels of the Lonely Mountain who must be subdued if evil is to be denied an enduring triumph.
With prolonged exposure to this tale comes awareness of some of the premise’s limitations as performed drama. There is incident and confrontation galore, beginning with the tavern-set opening scene in which Gandalf lights a fire under Thorin, followed by the dwarves’ arrival at their first destination, the farm of the skin-changer Beorn, first seen in the form of a bear. Then, once Gandalf leaves them to their own devices, the diminutive ones must contend with the dangers lurking within the vast Mirkwood forest, foremost of which are giant spiders that quickly spin webs around the morsel-sized travelers. Always, they are stalked and, as often as not, attacked by the fearsome Orcs, muscle-bound uglies in league with Smaug to continue their domination over Erebor.
However, as one skirmish follows another, it becomes clear that suspense cannot be a factor here because the rules of the game mitigate against it. Where the elves are concerned, there is no danger because they are, by nature, immortal. This is not the case for the dwarves but, with the exception of one injury, the little guys consistently escape unharmed while the humongous and ferocious Orcs go down as easily as shooting gallery ducks. Just as a token bow to credibility, you’d think a few dwarves might be sacrificed, but nope, they’re all charmed.
With Ian McKellen’s ever-imposing Gandalf bowing out for a long stretch, it might seem that the heavy lifting would be taken up by Martin Freeman’s slowly flowering Bilbo Baggins. At times it is. He does have a nose for gold, first in the form of the inevitable and mischievous ring, then with the treasures in the deepest sanctum of the ruined mountain kingdom now occupied by the slumbering dragon. Feeling his way, Bilbo gradually accepts the call to greatness Gandalf has thrust upon him.
Still, Bilbo also steps to the side through a middle stretch that provides time not only for Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) but for a significant layover in a port called Lake-town. The central player here is Bard, a barge man and trader who smuggles the dwarves into a Middle Ages-style backwater in which working stiffs, struggling families, layabouts and criminals are lorded over by the smart Master, brought to vibrant Dickensian life by Stephen Fry. As they are preoccupied by the real-world concerns of commerce, politics and personal intrigue rather than monsters, mythology and regal destiny, Bard and Master are the two most recognizably human characters in the film.
Once Bilbo provides the key to the kingdom under the mountain, his main order of business is to avoid being swallowed whole or burned to a crisp by the fire-bellied Smaug, who’s almost too big for the human-built quarters he occupies. Like some Bond villains who talk too much instead of quickly offing 007 when they have the chance, Smaug seems much enamored with the sound of his own voice. The ending is a true cliffhanger, the resolution to which audiences will be lining up for on December 17, 2014. And see this film in 3D. You will thank me!