The good news is that the second installment of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy is often every bit as spectacular and thrilling as the high points of Part 1— and even the peak moments of his incredible “Lord of the Rings.”
The moderately bad news is the narrative padding is beginning to show in a more obvious way. You can’t stretch a 300-page book into a nine-hour ultra-epic without popping in a significant amount of stuffing and/or slowing down the pace occasionally. As a result, even while your eyes are goggling at the climactic craziness on screen, you might be surprised to hear a discontented little voice inside wondering, “Shouldn’t this be over by now?”
Of course, that won’t be a major problem for the true devotee. Even if you find yourself stifling a yawn and staring at your fingertips once in awhile, there’s enough Middle Earth magic on display to send you home feeling at least middling spellbound.
After finally getting well under way last year in the slow-starting (yet billion-dollar-grossing) “An Unexpected Journey,” “The Desolation of Smaug” continues the journey of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) Gandalf the Wizard (Ian McKellen) and 13 disgruntled dwarfs to recover their stolen homeland from the fire-breathing dragon of the title.
Most of part two concerns the continuing adventures of the dwarfs and Bilbo on the road to their Lonely Mountain, with Gandalf off investigating the origin of the ominous dark magic that’s infecting the land — incorporating material from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Unfinished Tales.” Fleshing out those connections to the events of “Lord of the Rings” works nicely in terms of combining the overall Middle Earth saga. And Jackson and company have provided plenty of mind-boggling action to keep the adrenaline elevated, including an arachnophobia-inducing conflict with giant killer spiders and a particularly impressive running battle with pursuing Orcs (seriously ugly buggers, those Orcs) with our heroes bob in barrels down a rushing river. The latter being an embellishment on the book involving the recruitment of never-miss archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) from “LOTR” as prince of the less-than-hospitable Forest Elves.
The return of Legolas is an inspired bit of filler, but the same can’t be said for the decision to involve him and the newly invented elf lady-warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) in a love triangle with a dwarf heartthrob named Kili (Aidan Turner). Seriously now, we’ve got wizards, giant spiders, a dragon and the fate of the world at stake; do we really need tortured romance?
Apparently Tolkien didn’t think so, but never mind. It’s relatively painless and over fairly quickly (at least for this installment) and soon we’re on to the main event: the climactic confrontation with the evil dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is as impressively terrible as you could possibly hope. Smaug talks too much, it’s true, and he almost wears out his welcome in a protracted battle with Bilbo and the dwarfs, but he’s truly something to see. And he effectively provides another cliff-hanging finale for the third and final chapter next December.
Which, tortured romance or no tortured romance, I’m already dying to see.