'Smaug' a step up for Jackson's Hobbit trilogy
Bilbo turns tougher and more cunning and “The Hobbit” turns altogether more entertaining in “The Desolation of Smaug,” Peter Jackson's livelier, funnier and action-packed middle film in his trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's slight delight of a novel.
It looks more like a fantasy. Characters feel more distinct, with Martin Freeman's Bilbo making the transition from mere passenger on this dwarf's quest “beneath the Lonely Mountain” to the brains of the motley crew.
And there's just more going on. Jackson and company wisely tamper with the Holy Writ of Tolkien to invent a lady elf and to find Orlando Bloom's elf Legolas a part to play. They're more concerned with making this all a prelude to “The Lord of the Rings,” so foreshadowing and the suspicions of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) step to the fore.
That ups the ante, creates urgency and sets up a love triangle, just one of several elements that become cliffhangers before “The Desolation of Smaug” ends.
The company of quarrelsome dwarfs led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) stumble through Mirkwood as they make their way through spiders, suspicious elves and Lake-town toward the Lonely Mountain, where they have a date with a dragon who wiped out their kingdom and stole a vast treasure. Bilbo, who found this magical ring he refuses to tell them about, saves their biscuits time and again.
They stumble into Wood Elves, which is where Legolas and the lovely-but-deadly Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) enter the story. Tauriel takes a shine to the tallest of the dwarfs.
Fans of the novel will be impressed with the gloom of Mirkwood and the vast complex of the dwarf's city beneath The Lonely Mountain. Lake-town, the community of men at the base of the mountain long terrorized by the dragon Smaug, is a Teutonic fairytale Venice. Stephen Fry is the town's dictator, the Master, one of the few “name” players in this semi-obscure cast.
Jackson stages a splendid chase and a few stirring brawls with legions of digitally augmented goblins. Bilbo, given Freeman's exquisite double-takes, can only shake his head and endure their put-downs and suicidal orders.
Quibbles? The landscapes mostly look like matte paintings and the murk can be a bit too much.
The padded scenes that allowed them to stretch this brief book into three films are obvious.
But “The Desolation of Smaug” is engagingly desolate and absorbingly back-engineered to prefigure “The Lord of the Rings,” a movie that clips along and amuses as it does. Look for Jackson's cameo in the opening, which sets the tone. Call it another visual triumph for New Zealand's vision of Middle Earth.
Roger Moore is a film critic for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.