"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," (pronounced SMOWG), the sequel to last year's "An Unexpected Journey," and based on J.R.R. Tolkien's light fable, purports to be a far more urgent adventure than its predecessor, raising the stakes and breaking up the action with brief respites to serve the pace.
Except the overwrought action sequences and gratuitous spectacle suggest director Peter Jackson, with his unlimited resources, is reluctant to leave anything to the imagination, stripping Middle-earth of some of its majesty by revealing too much and for too long.
Though a little more than ten minutes shorter than its predecessor, "Smaug" feels interminable, and since it's the middle chapter of a trilogy, concludes with a rollicking cliffhanger (two actually, and one loose end). Which is to say, I will be back next year for the finale, by no will of my own.
Bilbo and his dwarvish companions overlook the great dwarf kingdom Erebor, which they hope to reclaim from Smaug the dragon, “chiefest and greatest calamity of our time.”
But the film isn't entirely bereft of magic. Jackson hasn't quite forgotten what made his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy equally enchanting and frightening: memorable characters and otherworldly mystery and danger to support the purely fantastical.
That sentiment is expressed masterfully in a key sequence in this film in which the very soul of our protagonist, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), faces the kind of irrevocable corruption only possible in Tolkien's world.
In the scene - which is of quick, but shocking violence - Freeman erases all trace of the fussy, innocent homebody of "An Unexpected Journey," revealing a glimpse into that schizophrenic, all-consuming greed to which Middle-earth's fate is so inextricably linked. It's almost a completely visual moment and speaks more about the impending darkness than any piece of dialogue in the film, dialogue so doom-laden and redundant that you wonder if the characters are lying to themselves to justify their involvement.
Consider the irritable and irritating elf-king Thranduil for a moment, who refuses to admit that dark forces threaten his lands, which, in turn, reminds the audience that peacetime in Middle-earth doesn't exist. This makes his characterization borderline offensive, because it suggests we needed reminding that the battle of good and evil is this world's status quo.
About that evil: Perhaps this film's most redeeming trait is Smaug himself, the gold-hoarding dragon who occupies the former dwarf kingdom of Erebor and whose death is our heroes' endgame. Like Gollum before him, Smaug, brought to life by Benedict Cumberbatch's throaty baritone and sophisticated CGI, is an utterly present creature of myth.
His banter with Bilbo at the film's climax is a highlight of these films, a reminder that the substance of fantasy lies in its contradistinction to humanity, which is why Jackson rightly chooses to cut to black after a close-up of Bilbo's face, who, at the end of the day, is the reason we're still watching.
Because by the time the credits roll, the amount of unresolved plot strands is exhausting. Just to name a few: a perilous side quest undertaken by a certain wizard; an unexpected love triangle; at least four antagonists, one of whom wore out his welcome in the first movie; and a newcomer who doesn't even register as a serious threat in the sequel.
So by the time they all meet their inevitable ends this time next year, will anyone care?
2 1/2 out of 4 stars.
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.