Less singing. More "Sting"-ing.
If old-school Hollywood marketing were in place in 2013, that might have been the tagline for this second instalment of The Hobbit, Peter Jackson's protracted film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's relatively slim novel, which preceded The Lord of the Rings.
The first movie seemed a drawn-out prelude, chiefly designed to appeal to Tolkien purists with its laborious exposition, its unedited approach to the Tolkien songbook and its painstaking character introductions. (The subtitle of the first film was An Unexpected Journey, but it might just as easily been titled Get to Know Your Dwarves.)
The second instalment, The Desolation of Smaug, dispenses with much of this stuff in favour of action and elvish derring-do. (Of all Jackson's Tolkien movies, An Unexpected Journey was the only one to be rated PG here in Manitoba. At the rate heads roll, arrows fly, and Bilbo digs his sword Sting into arachnids various, Desolation catapults the franchise back to its 14A rating.)
A flashback meeting between would-be dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) brings us up to speed: Thorin is on a mission to reclaim the dwarf city Erebor beneath the Lonely Mountain, captured by the formidable dragon Smaug, who sleeps beneath hills of gold and jewels as one imagines Donald Trump might do if he were (more) reptilian.
Among Thorin's dwarf helpmates is the simple, rustic hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), drafted by Gandalf for his "burglar" skills. Bilbo, remember, has come into possession of a very important ring that can render him invisible. If you haven't seen or read The Lord of the Rings, you'll be hearing more about that.
If you have seen LOTR, the adventures here seem a tad redundant. There is a scary encounter with giant spiders. The group entreats the help of an Elvish king. There are attacks by marauding orcs. Gandalf goes on a separate mission and finds himself prisoner of an even more powerful magical being. The fellowship of the dwarves gets aid not only from a winsome female elf (curious about hooking up outside her elvish race, no less) but the arrow-spewing elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom).
Familiar LOTR motifs arise too, including the creeping perversion of the natural world and the corrupting influence of gold -- which takes the form of both Bilbo's ring and the cache of treasure that foments a ruthless streak in Thorin.
When one of the dwarves is hit by an arrow, one almost anticipates a Boromir-esque death scene, la Fellowship of the Ring.
In short, director Peter Jackson is not really deviating far from his original LOTR trilogy. That is not entirely a bad thing: the man knows his way around Middle-earth and some sequences are filled with medieval thrills, particularly a dwarvish mass escape from elvish custody via wine barrels.
I also liked the sequence when the dwarf travellers get lost and confused trucking through the bush of Mirkwood. For some reason, it made me nostalgic.
The aforementioned female elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), does make an interesting change-up from Liv Tyler's Arwen when it comes to sheer ferocity. As the man who escorts the dwarves closer to their Lonely Mountain destination, Luke Evans' Bard is more a recognizable human than Viggo Mortensen's unerringly heroic Aragorn. And Benedict Cumberbatch, doing the voice and some motion-capture work as the dragon Smaug, brings a certain regal hubris to the fire-breather, even if his too-long scene with Bilbo under the Lonely Mountain ultimately puts the "bore" in Erebor.
The original plan for The Hobbit was that it would be directed by Guillermo Del Toro, a filmmaker with his own piquant touch when it comes to fantasy (Hellboy 2, Pan's Labyrinth). For whatever reason, Del Toro took himself off the project (he retains a screenwriting credit) and Jackson returned to give us more of the same.
It's a pretty good "same." But a more dramatic departure would have been appreciated.