This 'Hobbit' is shorter (a little) and better (a bit)
There's no doubt that the trip Bilbo Baggins takes in J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 children's fantasy The Hobbit is a long one. But does it have to be this long?
After 2 hours and 49 minutes of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last December, Peter Jackson is back with the second installment in his Middle-earth trilogy, a prequel to the Kiwi filmmaker's Lord of the Rings trilogy starring that other Baggins chap, Frodo.
This one, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, is a breakneck 2 hours and 41 minutes of pub crawling, white-water rafting, and fire-breathing dragon chitchatting. (Weeks before An Unexpected Journey's release last year, The Onion published its exclusive scoop: "The Hobbit to feature 53-minute-long scene of Bilbo Baggins trying to figure out what to pack.")
It can happily be reported that The Desolation of Smaug is not only eight minutes shorter than its forebear, it's at least eight minutes better - less twee, less chatty, more action, more Elvish. In the latter category, Jackson and his scenarists have dreamed up a new character - Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a pointy-eared Katniss Everdeen-type who joins the elf prince Legolas (Orlando Bloom) in close combat against Orcs and other enemies, slinging arrows and sword and speaking in subtitled Elven tongue. It's no wonder the dwarf warrior Kili (Aidan Turner) falls for her - who wouldn't? But are dwarf and elf unions countenanced in Mirkwood? Some on both sides might frown.
Such questions aside, there is much frowning to be done in The Desolation of Smaug - the woolly eyebrows of dwarves, the furrowed foreheads of wizards (Ian McKellen's Gandalf goes off on a side trip), the mopey mulling of the titular hero, played once again by Martin Freeman, an actor not exactly oozing star power and charisma.
As Bilbo and his troop of dwarves continue their trek across forest and field, mountain and moor, they encounter dangers of daunting scale - and daunting digital effects. While the giant spiders they tangle with are just souped-up versions of some 1950s sci-fi B-movie (radioactive arachnids, look out!), the fierce and relentless Orcs are vivid in their unpleasantness. And when Bilbo at last encounters the dragon Smaug - awakened from his beauty sleep 'neath a cavernous pile of gold - the beast is, indeed, impressive.
Writhing and reptilian, he is. And his voice, why that sounds like Benedict Cumberbatch in an echo chamber! "A darkness is coming, he warns Bilbo. "It will spread to every corner of the land!"
Visually, The Desolation of Smaug - in the 3-D, 24-frame-per-second version I saw the other night - is a cinematic and mostly seamless melding of real (and breathtaking) New Zealand landscapes, elaborate medieval-y sets, and computer imaging. (The film is also being shown in Jackson's hyped and horrendous 48-frame-per-second format, but the director promises it has less of a "video feel" than the 48-FPS version of the first Hobbit.)
The Hobbit is a story of courage and adventure, of leaving behind the coziness of the hearth to face epic challenges, and returning a changed and perhaps older and wiser man - um, hobbit. When Bilbo finally does find his way home to Hobbiton in next December's There and Back Again, it won't come a moment too soon.
Really, it won't.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Peter Jackson. With Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, and Ian McKellen. In English, and in Orc and Elvish with subtitles. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 2 hours, 41 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (intense action, violence, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters