The second “Hobbit” movie has the same strengths and weaknesses of the first, except the strengths are a bit stronger, and the weaknesses a bit less noticeable. I still can’t help feeling this story would have been better served as two movies than three – they’re so long that even the superior spectacle of “Smaug” feels numbing by the end, and you can just see entire subplots (lakeside hamlet politics, anyone?) that would have been deleted scenes on the DVD of a more tightly edited film. And I say that as someone who loves the Extended Editions of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
“The Hobbit” is just a smaller, simpler, more youthful story. It was written that way. In order to blow it up into a three-film series, and assuage nagging fears that it would all seem trivial in comparison to the apocalyptic epic he already sold a zillion tickets to, director Peter Jackson and his team have spliced all sorts of “Lord of the Rings” DNA into these prequels, making them feel more like prequels than they really needed to. Among other problems, it makes Gandalf’s consternation at the return of the Dark Lord Sauron in “Fellowship of the Rings” hard to understand. Does he just kind of… forget what happens to him in “Desolation of Smaug?”
A connection that was subtle in the books is made blindingly explicit here, as Team Jackson does what they talked themselves out of doing in “Return of the King,” and the shadowy, enigmatic spirit of lingering evil starts delivering villainous monologues and throwing haymaker punches. Showing what Gandalf was up to when he takes a powder from the dwarf/hobbit special forces op to go battle an evil Necromancer was fine, but I think it ventures too deep into “Lord of the Rings” cross-linking, too quickly. Also, was I wrong to hope we’d see some actual necromancy from the Necromancer? Elves versus zombies? Yes, please!
But as long as “The Desolation of Smaug” stays with Thorin’s crew and their relentless determination to get desolated by Smaug, we’re in good hands. The pace is faster than it was last time around, the secondary characters are more interesting – particularly a grim, dwarf-hating younger version of Legolas and his even bigger jerkweed of a father, whose distinction from the aloof but serene elves of Rivendell is made much clearer than it was in the original trilogy. Toolbox Legolas is actually more fun than Dashing Legolas was. The new female elf hunter played by Evangeline Lilly fits in quite well, and her romantic attraction to one of the dwarves is intriguing.
You won’t have much trouble telling the dwarves apart after this movie, because most of them get a bit more room to breathe as characters. The orcs are better detailed too, both in personality and visual character design. They still don’t fight as mean as they look, but they get a few licks in. Far more ominous than even the giant spiders and bloodthirsty White Orc is the weapon of mass destruction Bilbo is carrying in his pocket. Watching the Ring eat him alive is heartbreaking. Even Smaug the dragon instantly knows that thing is not to be trifled with.
Smaug is terrific, expertly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who rattles the theater with a deep voice full of vanity, arrogance, spite, and cunning. The animation is top-notch, and his long cat-and-mouse battle with Bilbo and the dwarves – far more intricate than what happened in the book – makes maximum use of all that cool underground dwarf city scenery we were teased with last year. The best movie dragon, in my opinion, remains the one from “Dragonslayer,” but Smaug gives him a run for his money. A fair judge must award “Dragonslayer” bonus points for accomplishing what it did without CGI special effects.
Computer graphic cartoons are still something of a problem with this series, and practically every other blockbuster these days. Sure, you’ve pretty much got to handle something like Smaug with pixel-craft, but too many of the other action sequences turn into videogame cut-scenes, despite being extremely well-conceived and directed. There are times when it really works, but other moments when the dwarves start bouncing around like Warner Brothers toons, and you can’t help thinking that the restraint of practical effects would have grounded the action scenes and made them more impressive than absurd. Nothing in “Smaug” is as egregious as the goofy goblin battle at the end of “An Unexpected Journey,” but the big mid-movie set piece – a whitewater escape from the elf dungeons in wine barrels – would have been even more amazing, if so much of it wasn’t animation.
Alas, the battle against the Dark Lord of Blockbuster Computer Graphics appears to have been decisively lost, so while there is much to appreciate about the design of movies like “The Desolation of Smaug,” there’s not much in the way of clever execution to admire. It’s all done with computers now, and the best we can hope for is a director who gets more out of his human cast than George Lucas does. Peter Jackson clears that bar easily, but except for a few bits here and there, he still hasn’t matched what he did with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I’ll wager just about everyone who sees the second film in the “Hobbit” trilogy will want to know what comes next after the screen abruptly goes dark, in one of the worst cliffhanger endings ever.