By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 6, 2013 at 1:01PM
Peter Jackson continues his lighter, more swashbuckling tone with the second Hobbit movie, "The Desolation of Smaug," which serves as a bridge to the much darker and apocalyptic "The Lord of the Rings." While total war mounts, there's still time for the rollicking action of the barrel flume ride (a theme park ride if ever there was one) and the much anticipated encounter with the menacing Smaug (deliciously voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), the greatest CG dragon ever created onscreen, thanks to the wizards of Weta.
Like "The Two Towers," and in keeping with "The Godfather" and "Star Wars" trilogies, this middle movie might prove to be the most satisfying, freed from exposition and closure. And what a cliff hanger!
Early reviews of the film are in agreement: "The Desolation of Smaug" is a vast improvement over last year's "An Unexpected Journey." A roundup below. We'll update as more reviews become available.
Beginning with the blessing of not being stuck with a bunch of hungry and thirsty dwarves in Bilbo Baggins's hut for a half-hour at the outset, nearly everything about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug represents an improvement over the first installment of Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved creation. The “unexpected journey” launched in last Christmas's box office behemoth becomes the heart of the matter this time around, making for plenty of peril, warfare, theme-park-ride-style escapes and little-guy courage. For Jackson and Warner Bros., it's another movie, another billion.
If “An Unexpected Journey” felt like nearly three hours’ worth of throat clearing and beard stroking, the saga gets fully under way at last in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the similarly massive but far more purposeful second chapter in Peter Jackson’s latest Tolkien enterprise. Actually shorter than the first film by nine minutes, this robust, action-packed adventure benefits from a headier sense of forward momentum and a steady stream of 3D-enhanced thrills — culminating in a lengthy confrontation with a fire-breathing, scenery-chewing dragon — even as our heroes’ quest splits into three strands that are left dangling in classic middle-film fashion. Jackson’s gargantuan undertaking can still feel like completist overkill at times, but that won’t keep the Middle-earth enthusiasts who pushed the first “Hobbit” film past the $1 billion mark worldwide from doing the same with this Dec. 13 release, which should see Warner Bros.’ coffers overflow like Erebor’s.
Who could guess, after the meandering first feature in a seemingly unnecessary eight-hour trilogy of films based on a novel of less than 300 pages, that Peter Jackson had such a vigorous and thrilling middle episode in store? With Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the dwarves finally done with introductory dawdling, they dive into a nonstop adventure among the noble Elves, the rough-hewn humans of Laketown and the ferocious dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). This time, Andy Serkis has not lent his presence to Gollum, but his work as second-unit director is spectacular. Each complex encounter, especially a flume-ride escape of the dwarves, boasts a teeming ingenuity of action and character. A bonus: the budding romance of the warrior Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the dwarf hunk Kili (Aidan Turner). In all, this is a splendid achievement, close to the grandeur of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.