In the liveliest and arguably best scene of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” Orlando Bloom’s Legolas deftly navigates across a river, bouncing along the heads of this trilogy’s protagonists while being the arrow-slinging, goblin slayer that made him such a fan favorite in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
It’s a somewhat fitting statement indicative of the series thus far. Despite Director/Co-writer Peter Jackson’s grand intentions, “The Hobbit” trilogy is but a mere stepping stone to his fantasy genre-redefining LOTR series. Two films into “The Hobbit” trilogy, the majority of the best scenes have heavily featured LOTR characters or foreshadowed events of major significance.
It’s almost as if Jackson is saying “Stay tuned! This whole Middle Earth saga is about to get a lot more interesting!”
For now, “Smaug” provides some hope that the series has found some much needed momentum after the aimless first chapter, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” offering some inspired action scenes, more engaging characters and an adversary worthy of a large-scale fantasy epic.
Picking up from “Journey,” Thorin (Richard Armitage) leads his fellow dwarves, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) on a quest to reclaim their homeland, Erebor. It won’t be easy as they first have to remove the fire-breathing dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch, “12 Years a Slave”) from the kingdom.
Besides Bilbo outwitting Gollum to claim the One Ring of Power, not a lot happened in “Journey,” so it’s not required viewing before seeing “Smaug.” While “Journey” was heavy on the singing, walking and talking, Jackson and credited co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro double up on the action in this middle chapter pitting the group in thrilling battles against giant spiders, goblins and Smaug.
Thankfully, this time out, the special effects and CGI creations don’t have that plastic sheen to them and look more an actual part of the world, which was especially important with Smaug. The set design by Ra Vincent, a longtime LOTR collaborator, is some of the series’ best.
While the dwarves again get the short end of the character development stick — audience members unfamiliar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel will be hard pressed to name four dwarves — the same can’t be said for the new cast members, all of whom have welcome layers to their characters.
Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans, “Fast & Furious 6”) struggles to determine if the dwarves will save or ruin the land while the Wood Elves consider their own investment in Thorin’s quest. Lee Pace is a fantastic addition to the cast as Thranduil, the secretive Wood Elf king.
Thorin and Thranduil have a tremendous scene that hints at the intriguing dynamics of the elf/dwarf animosity and that is more engaging than Thorin’s dragon quest. It’s a bit disappointing that Evangeline Lilly’s elf warrior Tauriel, the film’s lone female character with a significant role, promptly gets thrust into a love triangle with Legolas and a dwarf.
The actors aren’t asked to do a lot as Jackson regrettably placed more of a premium on the action — the fights would have even more impact if there was the threat of a beloved character getting harmed. LOTR had a far stronger balance of character development and action making each conflict more meaningful.
Save Armitage and Pace’s face off, there’s no moment where the actors get to go beyond the makeup and costumes and carry a scene solely based on their talents. Action junkies will appreciate the battles, but there’s the sense that this film could be so much more.
Other “Journey” issues remain. At 161 minutes, “Smaug” feels too bloated especially since that time isn’t used to give the audience a reason to care about this quest beyond the dwarves needing something to do.
There’s just not enough story here to merit a trilogy/nine hour investment for viewers. From a financial perspective, it makes sense to stretch out the tale over three films, but it certainly hurts the pacing.
Unlike previous entries in the series, Jackson doesn’t go for a smooth conclusion to ease into the next installment and leaves viewers on a cliffhanger so prepare for some audience outrage.
Two-thirds of the way through “The Hobbit” trilogy and it’s apparent that while this won’t match the level of excellence of the LOTR films, Jackson still finds a little more magic left in Middle Earth.
Rating: 7 out of 10