^ Ian Mckellen, Orlando Bloom, and Richard Armitage do their do in Part 2 of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” Trilogy
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Is Peter Jackson a man obsessed with trilogies and inequities ? Out of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, he fairly spun three sweeping epics–one per book. Now circling back to Tolkien’s seminal “The Hobbit,” he’s gone and protracted that single volume into a three-part movie miniseries. As a chronological preamble to the LOTR films, there’s something inherently anticlimactic about backstory served up after such heft, but Jackson, and his team of writers, including “Pacific Rim” director Guillermo del Toro and Jackson’s wife, Fran Walsh, seem to have a grand scheme for nuanced mayhem. It slowly took root in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” and now, in “The Desolation of Smaug,” the drudgery of plot masonry firmly in place, the scripters have loosened the strings and opened up the throttle. Jackson, behind the camera and at the cutting-board, seems more assured and free with hand. The result, bolstered by some enthralling thrills and timely whimsy, is a strong step up from “An Unexpected Journey.”
“Smaug” wisely doesn’t start where “An Unexpected Journey” ends, nor does it incessantly rehash what went on in chapter one. We begin even before that, in a rain-soaked town square as a cloaked Thorin (Richard Armitage, the most human-featured of the dwarf posse in “An Unexpected Journey”) slips into a tavern playfully named, The Prancing Pony. Inside, there are no other dwarves, just a battery of disfigured men (Middle-earth’s finest!) who hungrily eye Thorin as if he were the featured performer at an adult nightclub. Something foul is clearly afoot, but before a blade can be drawn, the gaunt and game Gandalf (Ian McKellen, who’s been Jackson’s backbone through eight films and counting) pulls up a seat and the edgy atmosphere quells. In the brief respite, the grey-bearded wizard briskly informs the dwarf that he is now the de facto king of the dislocated dwarf kingdom and that the forces of evil have put out a contract on his head.
Flashing forward to the quest at hand, the cadre of stout dwarves, with the furry-footed hobbit of title (Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins) in tow for his stealth capabilities, still needs to get to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their subterranean kingdom from the usurper dragon, Smaug, who killed off nearly the entire race and captured its endless bounty of hand-forged riches. Right off the bat, the dwarves encounter an ambiguous were-bear known as Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) in human form; after which they’re assailed by giant spiders before being imprisoned by wood elves. All this goes on while they’re being hunted by a pack of orcs–and they haven’t even reached the floating shanty town (Lake-town) at the foot of the mountain.
Each bend reveals a similar moral conundrum. Beorum despises dwarves because they’re greedy, but hates orcs more because they enslaved and killed most of his kind. Then there’s the elven king (a cynically foppish Lee Pace), interested in throwing in with the dwarves for a share of the loot. When they reject the offer, he incarcerates them; and later, as the rise of the evil sorcerer Sauron and his orc forces becomes evident, he decides the best policy for his kin is to close the gates and sit out the looming bloodbath. The most inert character, however, is the Master of Lake-town (Stephen Fry) who, like the pampered oligarchy in “The Hunger Games,” feeds himself glutinously while the commoners under his magistracy starve on suet.
In the funnest (and freest) part of the film, the dwarves flee the elven holding block in oaken kegs and shoot whitewater rapids through a gauntlet of orcs. They’re aided by pair of elves, one reluctant (Orlando Bloom’s Legolas) and one smitten with one of the dwarves (a full lipped Evangeline Lilly looking eerily like Liv Tyler from the LOTR series), who effortlessly dance over branch and boulder while piercing orc eyes with arrows as if it were a breathing reflex. There’s also a bit of “Three Stooges” zaniness too : one dwarf, wedged in his barrel, becomes an inadvertent projectile and ultimately transforms into a bladed (and blinded) whirling dervish of death.
It helps too that there’s more than just transmogrified hobgoblins to contend with. Smaug, when arisen, is a sight to behold and a Chatty Cathy (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) to boot. His diatribe about greed and destiny to an invisible Bilbo, employing the notorious ring of power, might be the most riveting sequence in the film.
There’s also some great tells. Bilbo can’t bring himself to tell Gandalf about the ring because he’s beholden to it, and the dwarves, it turns out, do have gold lust in their veins ; but the biggest revelation of all is that the desolation attributed to Smaug, isn’t really the aftermath of fire breathing raids but economic despair brought on by hoarding.
The evolution of “The Hobbit” series, while less smooth than the LOTR, boasts stunning hyper HD technology and 3D viewing options. Team Jackson has added some new facets (and groan-worthy lines) to the yarn to make it go the nine-hour distance. The upswing is there, but to know for sure, we’ll have to wait another year — and three more hours — to find out if the pot of gold is truly there to be had.
— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies