When it comes to the Hobbit movies, it’s easy to complain about bloat. It will be, in the end, an eight-to-nine hour three-film series adapted from a single, relatively short novel. Indeed, so dedicated to the story is director and cowriter Peter Jackson that he had to invent characters, insert favorites from the Lord of the Rings trilogy not present in the source material, and generally engorge the proceedings with all manner of extras.
What’s surprising is that, even with all that bloat, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug manages to zip nicely along. Yes, it’s 2 hours and 40 minutes. But it doesn’t really feel like it. Jackson keeps things moving.
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The sequel begins with a flashback showing wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) convincing dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to undertake the perilous quest that began in the previous film. Gandalf comes with a warning: There’s a price on Thorin’s head. Someone—an enemy with an unblinking eye—wants to kill the would-be dwarf king.
We then pick up where the last film left off. The pack of dwarves and their Hobbit burglar, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), are on the run. Orcs are on their heels, the road before them is dangerous, and if they don’t reach the mountain they seek in a few short days, they will miss their opportunity to breach the secret door to the underground kingdom.
Standing in their way are dozens of spiders and hundreds of wood elves and, oh yes, one ticked off dragon, the titular Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).
Among those wood elves are Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reprising his best known role) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). They can sense evil spreading across the lands beyond their forest realm, but Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace) will not allow them to take the fight to the enemy outside their borders. An isolationist, Thranduil seems to think the world will leave the elves alone if the elves sit idly by and allow the evil to spread.
Gandalf, meanwhile, leaves the band of dwarves to learn whence this evil springs. His travels bring him face-to-face with a not-quite-reborn Sauron (also voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). This discovery raises a whole host of questions about why Gandalf wasn’t a bit quicker on the draw in the early going of Fellowship of the Ring; perhaps they will be answered at some point over the last three hours of the Hobbit trilogy.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug suffers from the flaws of any middle chapter in a trilogy. It lacks a beginning (though the flashback helps on that score a bit) and it lacks an end. We close with Smaug on the loose and threatening to wreak havoc on a nearby lake town, a cliffhanger that will only annoy audiences and make them ask how much story could possibly be left.
On the whole, though, the film is entertaining. You should not pay to see the film in 3D, as 3D is terrible. I’d also like to give a special negative notice to the Regal Majestic in Silver Spring, Md., where I saw this film. The projector was slightly out of focus, rendering objects in the background absurdly and frustratingly blurry. Despite being informed of the problem, the theater’s staff was unable to fix it. The only thing worse than being forced to see a three-hour film in 3D is being forced to see a three-hour film in 3D out of focus.