There is one thrilling, rib-tickling sequence in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: A group of dwarves, riding inside empty wine barrels over rushing rapids and waterfalls, fends off an attack by an army of orcs with the help of bow-and-arrow-wielding elves. The setpiece is as fun and rousing as anything in Steven Spielberg’s canon. The action is sprawling and comes at you from all angles — there’s so much happening, your eyes don’t know where to look — and director Peter Jackson throws in some terrific slapstick as a bonus, leavening the furious excitement with laughs. It’s a showstopper.
But another part of what makes the sequence so memorable is that it also advances the story: It matters. The same cannot be said for the bulk of Smaug, a bloated, dawdling and distended adventure that throws in so many extraneous characters and subplots, the eponymous hero — Bilbo Baggins — is edged off the screen for large chunks of time. When Jackson announced he was going to adapt Tolkien’s 300-page novel into three films instead of the originally announced two, fans grumbled about studio greed and artistic indulgence. The now-infamous 30-minute dinner scene that opened the previous film, An Unexpected Journey, seemed to confirm those suspicions (early in Smaug, when the dwarves sat down for a meal, I gripped my armrests and braced for the worst, but fortunately it turned out to just be a snack).
Once Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and their merry band of 13 dwarves finally set out on their quest to reclaim Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) as the rightful ruler of their kingdom, An Unexpected Journey found its footing. Despite all the additions and changes to the original text, the movie had momentum and the characters had a clear goal: travel to the Lonely Mountain and recover a jewel guarded by an enormous dragon named Smaug. The film followed them on their quest as they constantly pushed forward, even though it ended with the heroes still far away from their destination.
With Smaug, Jackson opens up the story in an attempt to create a bigger universe, much like he did with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the tale is too slight to support the added weight, and the focus and impetus are lost. Why do we have to spend so much time with the pouty elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace) warning his son and heir Legolas (Orlando Bloom) not to fall for the beautiful Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, playing a character that never existed in the books), because she’s not worthy of the throne? Why do we have to endure Tauriel’s torment over being torn between duty to her tribe and her love for one of the dwarves, Kili (Aidan Turner), who conveniently happens to be unusually tall and handsome for his kind?
Why does Gandalf have to exit the film at midpoint to face off against Sauron, when we already know how all that business turns out? I appreciated the detail and sense of community that Jackson puts into his depiction of Lake-town, a port city in which a widowed smuggler (Luke Evans) plays an important role in the dwarves’ quest (the city itself will be a major part of the third film). But did we really have to spend that long meeting all the denizens and their children?
And then there’s the chatty dragon situation. The Desolation of Smaug builds and builds to a confrontation between the heroes and the enormous fire-breathing beast, which sleeps on mountains of gold coins and jewels and treasure. As usual, Jackson doesn’t disappoint on a visual level — the dragon looks wonderful — but man does Smaug like the sound of its own voice. Acted by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug talks and talks and talks and talks — he’s like all the James Bond and Dr. Evil villains rolled into one — and despite its impossible size and fearsome appearance, the dragon is never all that scary (it’s certainly not very bright, either).
Whenever the movie gives him some screen time, Freeman does well depicting Bilbo’s growing dependence on the magical ring he stole from Gollum — it’s like a drug — and he’s good, too, at portraying the timid hobbit’s burgeoning bravery and courage (he gets to save the day, more than once).
But Jackson has become too distracted by his digital toys to give his characters the same weight and importance he used in the Rings trilogy (Bloom, for one, comes off as stiff and robotic, even though he’s reprising the signature role that made him famous). The Desolation of Smaug is all about finely rendered CGI creatures (including giant orcs and an enormous bear-monster), villages that feel like sets augmented by special effects and a visual grandeur that is at odds with the intimacy of this small, simple tale. In one scene, the dwarves wander into a poisoned forest where they are attacked by a cluster of huge spiders. But the sequence isn’t nearly as effective as the one in The Return of the King in which Sam squared off against just one overgrown arachnid.
Saying a movie looks like a video game has become a hoary cliche, but that’s really the best way to describe long chunks of Smaug, which uses so much animation it practically qualifies as a Pixar movie. And although the movie ends on an enormous, groan-inducing cliffhanger, this story has been stretched so thin that all the suspense has seeped out of it. People who haven’t read the book will have to wait until next December to find out how Bilbo and his gang fares. But it’s hard to imagine anyone fretting much until the third film arrives.
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Aiden Turner, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch (voice only).
Director: Peter Jackson.
Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro. Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Producers: Peter Jackson, Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh.
A Warner Bros release. Running time: 161 minutes. Fantasy violence, gore, scary monsters. Opens Friday Dec. 13 at area theaters.