Movie review: An exciting return to Middle Earth

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Martin Freeman, left, and John Callen in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Mark Pokorny)

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”



2 hours, 41 minutes

When I was a kid, my friends and family constantly told me I had no taste because I loved every movie I saw. Every trip to the theater was to see the best movie ever made. I’ve gradually come the conclusion that the movies weren’t really better back then. It was the experience of being transported that I loved.

These days there are still plenty of people who think I have no taste, but for different reasons. As I was walking in to the late show of this week’s “Hobbit” sequel, “The Desolation of Smaug,” a bundled figure braving the cold outside the theatre hollered out, “Try not to rip it to shreds, Mr. Jenness!” “I’ll try,” I promised, and luckily, this time, Peter Jackson and the old gang from Middle Earth made it easy on me.

I am not one of the “haters” when it comes to “The Hobbit,” the first in a trilogy of prequels to the breathtakingly successful series, “Lord of the Rings.” Many people, fanboys in particular, singled out “An Unexpected Journey,” “The Hobbit’s” somewhat ungainly subtitle, for blistering criticism for being, among other things, too long and plodding. I find this more than a little disingenuous considering the “Lord of the Rings” movies are definitely plodding and only got more so on the four-hour special editions.

That said, I won’t deny that something’s missing. “The Hobbit” lacks a little bit of the undefinable spark which made those earlier movies so perfect. So be it. And, if the first of “The Hobbit” trilogy was a little lackluster, this second, “Smaug,” is certainly a step up.

The story begins in flashback, setting up the relationship between wandering wizard Gandalf and exiled dwarf king, Thorin. After this expositional chore, we’re back to present day with the company of dwarves, and one hobbit, one step closer to making their way to the mountain which once was their home and now is the dominion of the great and powerful dragon, Smaug. In a move that may seem a little off-putting to some, especially those raised on the Rankin/Bass animated “Hobbit” from 1977, the dragon’s name is now pronounced “Sm-ouw-g” instead of the more proper (in my opinion) “Smog.”

There are many a perilous foe to contend with in this quest, including a dragon, giant spiders, orcs on giant wolves, evil spirits, and exceedingly cranky wood elves, including a familiar face. Legolas, the hero-elf of the first series is given a back-story of sorts in this film, though he is barely mentioned, if that, in the actual book. Though this disparity has caused many a moan from the film-geek blogger crowd, I have no problem with his inclusion. Orlando Bloom plays the character well, and he’s entertaining, and isn’t that what they complained was lacking from the first “Hobbit?”

Also new, and this time created out of whole cloth, is the character of Tauriel, a deadly lady elf played by “Lost’s” Evangeline Lilly. Lilly is also an entertaining performer and does well with the character, though I fear for her future. Since she is never seen nor mentioned in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, I’m afraid something bad is in store for her in the third movie.

Speaking of the third “Hobbit” film, I did have one problem with this movie, and it’s a similar one that I had with last month’s “Catching Fire.” Yes, we all know there is another installment to come, but is it to much to ask to at least attempt to make the film I’m watching even half-way self-contained? “The Desolation of Smaug” ends abruptly — in the middle of an action sequence, actually, and it’s more than a little disconcerting. Especially since I was enjoying it rather than enduring it.

“Smaug” is better than “Unexpected Journey” because it ups the ante on interesting characters, and keeps the pace at a brisker clip. The dragon Smaug, for instance, is a great character, and as voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, brings a great sense of menace to the tale. In addition, Jackson and crew mine the Tolkien apocrypha to come up with a few scenes that, rather than slowing everything down by adding unnecessary exposition, instead add to and clarify some of the events of “Lord of the Rings.”

“The Hobbit” is always going to suffer by comparison, for a simple reason. No matter how much extra material Peter Jackson tries to shoehorn into this story, the essential plot is derived from a book that was intended for children. “The Hobbit” was a simple and fun adventure tale that Tolkien later adapted and expanded to create his magnum opus.

That said, I for one, am enjoying these return visits to Middle Earth and if these aren’t the greatest movies I’ve ever seen, I’ll just chalk it up to age and experience.

Grade: B+

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and scares.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.