Second chapter The Hobbit turns darker
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Three stars (out of four)
A child’s tale becomes more of a grown-up’s one in The Desolation of Smaug, the fire-breathing second chapter of Peter Jackson’s ongoing screen trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Now is the time to put away the silly squabbling and interminable nibbling of the first film, An Unexpected Journey.
Danger has become much more real for our Middle-earth travellers, as the feared dragon Smaug rouses from ancient slumber, while orcs, wargs, wood-elves, giant spiders and an evil Necromancer threaten their easterly quest to reclaim the lost dwarf Kingdom of Erebor.
Reluctant hobbit hero Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) finds his courage and his possible curse, the latter threatened by the enchanted ring that will fuel further Tolkien adventures.
Bilbo’s still in the restless company of 12 dwarf warriors, led by exiled Prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and they’re joined by characters repurposed and new: elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who isn’t supposed to appear until the following The Lord of the Rings trilogy; and elf wonder woman Tauriel (Canada’s Evangeline Lilly), an entirely new creation designed to add a needed jolt of estrogen to the proceedings.
It’s a lot to take in, whether in standard 24fps projection or high-definition 48fps, either in 3D. Jackson’s audacity and folly both come to fore in this picture, which is much more than a placeholder but something less than a fully satisfying saga in its own right.
He and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro get right to work, setting a determined mood with a flashback meeting between Thorin and benevolent wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), as they discuss plans to liberate Erebor and its gold-laden Lonely Mountain, which is inhabited by the rapacious and greedy Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).
“War is coming!” a shadowy figure soon hisses, and it is enjoined throughout this episodic and bladder-testing film, almost to the point of ludicrous overkill. There are innumerable set pieces in which it seems all is lost, only to have a well-timed arrow or sword save the day.
But many of these same set pieces make for thrilling viewing.
A shortcut through the dark forest of Mirkwood brings Bilbo and the dwarves into the webbed domain of giant and voracious spiders, who threaten to make lunch of them all.
An abduction by wood-elves leads to an amusing river adventure involving oak barrels and astonished dwarves, in a caper improvised by Bilbo, who could make MacGyver his middle name.
Best of all is the pas de deux between newly brave Bilbo and ever-boastful Smaug, as hobbit and dragon face off over dwarf land and gold.
Lustrous lensing and the natural beauty of Jackson’s New Zealand continue to provide an otherworldly aspect, although this film is arguably the darkest Tolkien trek yet for Jackson, in imagery if not in psychology.
The acting continues to be strong, with Freeman’s Bilbo becoming much more interesting as he ceases whining and discovers his cojones along with the magical properties of the ring he riddled out of Gollum in chapter one.
Newcomer Lilly is also praiseworthy, turning a potentially superfluous new character — one that risks enraging Tolkien purists — into a welcome presence, as deadly towards evil as she is entrancing to male minds.
So it’s game on in Middle-earth as battle lines are fully drawn and deepened, but the suspicion remains that this is a fantasy that could have been better served by two films rather than three: just “there and back again,” to use Tolkien’s original subtitle for The Hobbit.
Yet for all that, The Desolation of Smaug serves to move the story forward, making us anticipate next year’s final chapter and confrontations.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.