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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

With The Desolation of Smaug, we’re into the middle third of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a two-year, nearly eight-hour project. The almost impossibly hazardous odyssey of the characters—the dwarves, elves, largish, violent goblinesque orcs, wizards, assorted other creatures, and ordinary mortals—is proceeding according to the movie-makers’ somewhat grandiose scheme, but for those not enrolled in the Tolkien-fan tribe, this cinematic saga can sometimes be more a perplexing slog than compellingly Odyssean.

This is partly the result of unfamiliarity with Tolkien’s 1936 novel, and his much later, much better known Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was selectively raided for material to fill out this adaptation in an attempt to justify its length. It wasn’t a surprise that last year’s opening installment of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy had an intermittent quality of inflation, padding, and repetition.

Things seem to be picking up some in The Desolation of Smaug despite some of the same kind of redundancies—a surfeit of hair’s-breadth escapes and impossibly craggy, almost bottomless Stygian spaces. This one better succeeds in melding its storyline with the computer-fantasticated settings. And the story is more involving; it generates more tension.

At the outset, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) ominously tells Thorin (Richard Armitage), the dispossessed king of the dwarves, “Darker minds will turn toward Erebor.” So here we are, with Thorin and his little band of dwarves, the reluctant Bilbo (Martin Freeman), uncle of the Lord of the Rings hero Frodo, and Gandalf, on their imperiled quest to reach that very mountain, in which dwells the horrendous dragon Smaug (given voice by an unrecognizable Benedict Cumberbatch). New to this adventure is a figure familiar from Lord of the Rings, the Elfin crown prince Legolas (Orlando Bloom). There’s also an invented character, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a very un-Tolkien, post-feminist, kick-ass elfin warrior, for whom Legolas yearns. (In his wan, almost waxen, bleached-blonde, blue-eyed way, he’s rather prettier than her.) The digital designing extends to much of the battling against evildoers these two engage in, and these sequences are characteristically cartoonish, a quality that was not a part of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies.

If The Desolation of Smaug has too little of the majestically engrossing fabling, the gripping excitement of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s gradually shaping up to be a lively, increasingly involving entertainment.

Watch the trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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