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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
In Theaters: 12/13/2013
On Video: 04/08/2014
By: Jason McKiernan
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Scratch behind my ear.

Here we are, on leg two of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of The Hobbit. One book, three films. Seems like overkill, doesn’t it? That very question has been at the center of debate about this epic Lord of the Rings prequel since it was first announced that original LOTR franchise director, Peter Jackson, would be taking the Hobbit reins from Guillermo del Toro, who had initially planned a two-part adaptation. Last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was simultaneously a cuddly and familiar return to Middle Earth and a warning shot that the pending trilogy might suffer from excess narrative bloat. Now, part two, The Desolation of Smaug, arrives to confirm that warning.

Early buzz indicated this second entry in Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy as a welcome improvement on a disappointing original. And that assessment might make sense, if the viewer fell asleep for the first act of the film…which isn’t an unlikely scenario. The Desolation of Smaug is filled with such a sizable amount of unnecessary bloat and inconsequential filler material that it feels as though the film is spinning its epic wheels in preparation for a dazzling finale… which it is. As a result, this film isn’t really an improvement over its predecessor, but rather a precise replica in terms of structure and entertainment value.

Of course, that’s not entirely a bad thing. There were certainly some wonderful things in An Unexpected  Journey. Jackson was able to recapture the magic of his original LOTR world while pivoting thematically to a more fanciful tone. That same feel runs through The Desolation of Smaug, though as the narrative hurtles (well, let’s be honest… saunters) toward its epic conclusion, the film feels a little more like a stale copy of the original trilogy. Journey was slow to hit takeoff velocity before its pivotal, signature scene — the Bilbo v. Gollum limerick throwdown — set it on course for a stirring finale. Similarly, Smaug bears the burden of re-establishing the story’s context and adding new subplots before engaging the central story in earnest, with another crucial showdown between Bilbo and the titular dragon jolting the film into its riveting final act.

The issue is clear, right? Both Hobbit films seem to trace the same scripted path — handicapped by the structure of the trilogy, hinging on one brilliant piece of iconography from the source material but treading a lot of water in order to get there. The trouble is compounded somewhat in this film, since the screenplay — with contributions by the quartet of Jackson, del Toro, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens — is at such great pains to fill space between the important events that it creates new storylines for its supporting characters, a few of whom were never even featured in the novel. It’s fun to see Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, but he wasn’t actually a character in The Hobbit. And then there’s Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), his on-again off-again love interest, who is a completely original character invented by Jackson. It’s a double-edged sword for the screenwriters, since the paucity of female characters is noticeable in the novel (and Lilly is fabulous in the role), but the wholesale creation of a new character with the explicit purpose of extending the running time only hinders the film’s narrative inertia.

And yet, when our heroes finally reach the Lonely Mountain and Bilbo attempts to swipe the Arkenstone from the treasure-laden fortress of Smaug (voiced with suitably imposing dread by Benedict Cumberbatch), we sense Jackson and Co. are once again able to dig into the material they are really passionate about. Once that passion is engaged, the film launches into a third act that is every bit as wondrous and adventurous as the first film… and yes, maybe even an improvement.

So this journey back to Middle Earth, like last year’s, is a mixed bag of pleasures and plodding, of late-game excitement finally overcoming early-stage boredom. As the pivotal Middle Movie of this trilogy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is interesting enough to carry us to the final chapter but not so essential that del Toro’s idea for a two-film arc doesn’t seem like the worst plan in hindsight. Without giving anything away, this film ends in a manner that would appear to set up an all-climax third installment, which would be a welcome change of pace from the fits and starts we’ve endured on this journey so far.