Here's a bunch of dwarves from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." Good luck remembering which one is which. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' Director: Peter Jackson Stars: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen Rating: PG-13 2 (out of 5) Globes
Watching what Peter Jackson has done to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” — a nice, sprightly lark that doesn’t break the 300 page mark, now hubristically super-sized into three three-hour films — is like suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. That’s not entirely true: It’s only sometimes, and then only briefly, likable. The second installment, “The Desolation of Smaug,” is easier to take than the first. That’s not due to any particular thing it does; it’s simply because the shock of Jackson’s crimes have worn off. One is allowed to sit back and accept that this will be a trilogy with just a bunch of mildly diverting, often seemingly purposeless loud and clangy stuff.
If you haven’t seen the first since a year ago, you may even forget what exactly is being sought by hairy-footed hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, as always an engaging maker of terrific faces) and his band of largely interchangeable dwarves (most fat and short, some tall and brooding in the Viggo Mortensen knockoff mould). But such is the problem with ballooning Tolkien’s slender tale. Things just seem to happen, with little explanation, or none at all. Even with all the time in the world, the plan to siege upon the fearsome dragon Smaug goes curiously underexplained. The plot doesn’t advance much, and the film cuts out right before the climax. (The third film will presumably be two hours of a monotonous dragon fight, with an hour of various denouements.)
But not all is gloomy, especially if you don’t see it in the eye-gouging high frame rate format, which is fine and futuristic except when anyone moves or does anything. Protracted introductions are out of the way. Gone are the dwarf songs and excessive washing of dishes. “Smaug” is basically all action. There’s a long-take chase scene with our heroes in barrels falling down a river. It’s fun and witty, albeit nakedly cribbed from the even better sequence in Steven Spielberg’s “Tintin.” And technology has finally — belatedly — aged to where we get a truly awe-inspiring dragon, and one voiced by no less than Benedict Cumberbatch (alas, unrecognizable under all that growling). Then again, Smaug doesn’t do much but sleep in his own version of Scrooge McDuck’s Money Bin then breathe fire without hitting anyone.
What made Peter Jackson the perfect person to make “The Lord of the Rings” makes him a horrible choice for “The Hobbit.” You can see all the sweat from his desperation to pound “The Hobbit” into a retread — to will that financial (if not artistic) zenith back into life after some setbacks (like his also swollen "King Kong" and the truly disastrous massacre of "The Lovely Bones"). He even brings back boring Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who now has a father played by an actor (Lee Pace) who in real life is two years younger than him. By the time Jackson unaccountably inserts flame-eyed Sauron into his narrative, Jackson’s fiddling with the source has become so reckless that the third film promises to be a deep and flavorful bouillabaisse of crazy that may have nothing to do with Tolkien. One thing it won’t be is a story well told.