The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
IF old-school Hollywood marketing had been in place for this second instalment of The Hobbit, the tagline might have been: "Less singing. More 'Sting'-ing."
The first movie seemed a drawn-out prelude chiefly designed to appeal to J.R.R. Tolkien purists with its laborious exposition, its painstaking character introductions and its unedited approach to the Tolkien songbook. This sequel dispenses with much of this stuff -- and Tolkien's original story -- in favour of action and elvish derring-do.
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.
Among Thorin's dwarf helpmates is the simple, rustic hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), drafted by Gandalf due to his "burglar" skills.
If you've seen Jackson's admirable Lord of the Rings trilogy, the adventures here seem a tad redundant, with an inventory that includes: a scary encounter with giant spiders; the group entreating the help of an Elvish king; an attack by marauding Orcs; and Gandalf going on a separate mission and finding himself prisoner of an even more powerful magical being.
The fellowship of the dwarves get aid not only from Evangeline Lilly's winsome female elf Tauriel (like Liv Tyler's Arwen, she's curious about hooking up outside her elvish race, no less) but also the arrow-spewing elf Legolas (the returning 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.
The resemblance to the original LOTR trilogy is not entirely a bad thing: Jackson 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.
As the man who escorts the dwarves closer to their Lonely Mountain destination, Luke Evans's 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 puts the "bore" in Erebor.
Blu-ray extras include Jackson's personable tour of the Hobbit's sets and locations, four production featurettes (including one on Howard Shore's music scoring), and the inevitable Middle-earth New Zealand travelogue. 3 1/2 out of five