Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Stephen Fry, Graham McTavish, Ken Stott, Aidan Turner, Dean O'Gorman, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Mikael Persbrandt, Sylvester McCoy, Craig Hall, Ryan Gage, John Bell, Mark Mitchinson, Manu Bennett, Lawrence Makoare, Ben Mitchell, Dallas Barnett
Written by: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro, based on a novel by J. R. R. Tolkien
Directed by: Peter Jackson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
Running Time: 161
Date: 12/13/2013
IMDB

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Enter the Dragon

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was released in 2002, it was a totally satisfying experience, even though it was a middle child. It didn't have the character introductions of the first entry, nor did it have the slam-bang conclusion of the third entry. But it still began and ended in logical, natural places, places that had been chosen by the story's original author, J.R.R. Tolkein.

Now, as we all know, Jackson and his crew have divided up a 320-page novel -- rather than a 1200-page epic -- into a three-part, nine-hour movie saga. And Jackson and his co-writers are now the ones that must find the stopping points. If a viewer had read all the books, he or she could be mentally prepared for the point at which The Two Towers leaves off, but there's no such preparation available for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

In other words, I found myself watching this movie, watching the drama and suspense increase, and knowing that it was going to prematurely stop at some point. I was bracing myself for an unnatural ending. But as The Hobbit movies are 3 hours and not 2 hours long, it's much harder to judge or anticipate the storytelling rhythms. So I was doing this for a long time, almost an hour, I think.

That's not a very enjoyable way to watch what is otherwise a very enjoyable movie. And I imagine that, a couple of years from now, once viewers have all three movies available to watch on DVD or Blu-ray or a hard drive or a cloud or what have you, then this won't be much of an issue anymore. But for now patience is a virtue.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug begins with a flashback, showing a meeting between Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage), who is next in line to be king, if only he can obtain the Arkenstone. Unfortunately, said stone is in the possession of the cunning, evil dragon Smaug.

Cut to a year later, as the journey continues. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) doesn't have as much to do in this one as he did in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, except struggle with the temptation to put on his ring, and then struggle to take it off again. He and the band of dwarfs meet the skin-changer Beorn, who begins as a giant, hungry dog-like creature before turning back into a giant human-like creature.

He sends the travelers on their way through a dark, enchanted woods, populated with huge spiders. Bilbo uses his ring and saves the day, and a couple of irritated elves show up to help, including Legolas (Orlando Bloom) from the Lord of the Rings movies, and his lovely companion Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). To make matters more complicated, some romantic tension is developed between Tauriel and one of the dwarves, Kili (Aidan Turner).

The elves capture and lock up our heroes, except for Bilbo, who -- you guessed it -- has used his ring. He helps his friends escape in barrels down a river, chased by orcs and by elves. They meet a human boatman, Bard (Luke Evans), who takes them to Lake-Town. From there they head to the Lonely Mountain, where Bilbo enters the glorious treasure room and meets Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).

There's a lot more, of course, and that's the benefit of having so much cinema time devoted to such an average-length novel. Nothing needs to be left out. Jackson can even add a few things if he wants to, if he risks raising the ire of die-hard Tolkeinites. His direction is still forceful and smooth, emphasizing movement over chaos, which is a nice change of pace from most blockbusters. He knows how to tell an old-fashioned story, finding a good pace, and throwing in action, suspense and rest breaks in equal measure.

The action scenes are indeed impressive, as is the movie's design. It saves the best for last, the awesome treasure room, wherein Bilbo can't take a step without clinking the coins beneath his feet. It's appears to be acres wide, with an unknown depth. Smaug's first appearance from under a small avalanche of coins is a terrific highlight.

Overall, I'm enjoying these Hobbit movies. Though the length is the same, they seem slightly smaller in scale, slightly more playful than The Lord of the Rings. I think this is thanks in part to Martin Freeman's presence as Bilbo. Indeed, Jackson seems to have cast funnier actors this time around; even Stephen Fry is here as the Master of Lake-Town. I will be looking forward to next year's conclusion, and then perhaps to the day that I can watch the entire series with my son.

Note: I saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in good old 24fps. As for the whole 48 frames-per-second thing, it doesn't seem to have caught fire since last year. I saw the first movie in this format, and I personally don't like it. Jackson still insists on using it, however, but only about 1000 screens out of nearly 4000 will be adopting it. I sure hope this isn't the future of cinema.

Warner Home Video's Blu-ray release (the non-3D version) boasts near-perfect picture and sound, though the extras are on the lean side. There's a 41-minute "Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set," several shorter behind-the-scenes featurettes, trailers, and a music video. I found that my enthusiasm for this second entry has waned considerably since I saw it. Maybe the third one, coming this December, will tie things together.

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