Enter the dragon

There’s plenty to enjoy in part two of The Hobbit trilogy

He can smell you, Bilbo.

He can smell you, Bilbo.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Starring Ian McKellen and Martin Freeman. Directed by Peter Jackson. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

I have to cop that I’m not a big fan of director Peter Jackson’s current approach to narrative: the stretching of a single story arc over the course of three winters. Especially since the lean narrative of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit could have comfortably fit into a three-hour movie. But that’s neither here, there, nor back again. I’m not the target demographic. But I used to be, way back when.

Regardless, gauging from the whoops and cheers from the kids during the showing I attended, Jackson nails it satisfactorily in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second part of his three-part film adaptation of the book.

And it’s not as though I didn’t enjoy it myself—the vistas were perfectly lovely to look at in a way that evoked the fantasy paintings of old Brothers Hildebrandt book covers; the action is properly fast, furious and heroic. Plus the icky romantic stuff (which I don’t recall from 40 years ago, when I last read the book) doesn’t take up too much of the 161 minutes of running time.

Admittedly, the nearly three hours of movie doesn’t seem that long. The action picks up from where we left off with Gandolf (Ian McKellen), Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the dwarf posse setting off to the evil woods of Mirkwood and a confrontation with the foul dragon Smaug (deliciously voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) in the hall of the former mountain king. But first they have to confront giant spiders, rampaging orcs and cranky elves before barrel-riding on down into the degraded village of Laketown.

As the second entry in the sprawling narrative, it’s mostly setting up the characters who will serve their function in the conclusion next year, but at least Jackson finds a moderately satisfying point at which to leave us cliffhanging.

Jackson (along with his usual co-screenwriters, including special guest Guillermo del Toro) keeps a lot of plates spinning here, padding the source material with additional storylines from Tolkien’s dusty side notes, and he does a competent job. Some of it doesn’t feel entirely necessary, like the expansion of the role of Bard the Bowman’s family life, and the banal Laketown demagogue (Stephen Fry) and his cartoonish minion seem to have stepped directly off the set of the BBC sitcom Blackadder.

And, if you want to be nitpicky, there’s a kind of rushed quality to the practical makeup effects, with sporadic slipping wigs and peeling prosthetics, but it’s not all that distracting during the course of all the bouncing around that the characters are doing.

When Bilbo and crew arrive to confront Smaug, the film settles down into a fine-tuned hum.

Obviously, as an epic, it’s not as subtextually satisfying as the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, because it wasn’t intended to be an epic. But one feels that when this trilogy is completed, it’ll serve nicely as the run-up to Jackson’s true masterwork. All told, it’ll be, what, damn near 20 hours of movie when run together?