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Dragon Drama 

You might find yourself enjoying the second Hobbit film more than the first, although still avoid the HFR 3-D

A curious thing happens about two hours and 40 minutes into the latest Hobbit movie: You don't want it to end. More curious still: There's enough story left that it arguably shouldn't end. After the debacle of the first Hobbit adaptation, The Desolation of Smaug is more than a welcome change of pace. It's reason enough for the entire trilogy to exist.

But let's back up briefly. The first film in the series—An Unexpected Journey—was also in the three-hour range. But its origin story didn't require nearly that much time, so we had overly bloated scenes everywhere and all sorts of dissonance in tone as director Peter Jackson laid on the merry playfulness of the dwarves entirely too thick. By the time that journey actually began, it really was kind of unexpected because we wasted 30 minutes watching dwarves get drunk first.

There was only the poor technical decision to release the film (in a limited capacity) in High Frame Rate 3-D, so 48 frames of film per second rather than the usual 24. Theoretically, that makes a film look more lifelike. But 3-D, despite what anyone may tell you, is wildly artificial and not at all lifelike, so the combination of the two was very difficult thing to get used to and a poor fit for a film that was way too long.

Though the HFR 3-D is back again, critics were spared from enduring it this time around. Hopefully, you'll make the same decision. Truly, neither film needs it, because a nauseous audience has a hard time enjoying almost anything. Even without that constant annoyance, The Desolation of Smaug shows all the cohesion and daring that its predecessor did not. Most of this film is as good as anything in the Jackson-helmed Tolkien universe.

After a brief prologue, we're right back on the road to Lonely Mountain, where Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves seek the Arkenstone. It's being held, along with all the riches of the dwarf kingdom, by Smaug, a fire-breathing dragon who, even by cinematic standards for dragons, is pretty damned intimidating.

Like all things Hobbit/Lord of the Rings, the quest owes a lot to Homer's Odyssey, with all manner of beasties and peril at every turn. We saw some of that in An Unexpected Journey, but it's the bulk of the action here. And once again, Jackson (flanked by his crack effects team at WETA in New Zealand) have outdone the first film. The astonishing point to consider there, of course, is that all the Hobbit films, like Lord of the Rings, are one big production; there's no reason the effects in this film should be so much more vibrant. From Smaug to hordes of spiders to an epic battle between orcs and elves, it all works better.

Speaking of elves, there's a Legolas sighting. Orlando Bloom returns, even though the character is nowhere to be found in Tolkien's original text of this story. He doesn't get in the way or anything, and there's probably a vast contingent of fans who will be delighted to see him. Perhaps originalists will have a bigger problem with Tauriel, an elven warrior portrayed by Evangeline Lilly that Jackson created out of thin air.

Both of those appearances can presumably be traced back to the fact that The Hobbit was only about 300 pages, not nearly enough for nine hours of screen time. Also because of that, we're treated to more character development of the dwarves than you might expect. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) was the primary supporting character during the first third of this trilogy, and since he's the king-in-waiting, he's still a huge factor. But watch more closely for the white-bearded Balin (Ken Scott); he's the conscience of the company of dwarves, the discretion to Thorin's valor. It's rare to find such a subtle performance in a film so bombastic.

And all of this leads to a mammoth confrontation with Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). It might be the most arresting part of the film, and it's certainly the primary contribution Desolation makes to the Tolkien legendarium. It's pretty gripping to watch Bilbo and the dwarves try to outwit and outmaneuver the dragon, but Jackson still finds room for a couple moments of comic relief to break the tension. That the film can hold our attention more than two hours in, and that it has held our attention almost all of the way, is a testament to Jackson's passion for the story and his ability to navigate it.

As a bridge film, The Desolation of Smaug breathes some pretty rare air. Most second films in pre-destined trilogies don't have much to offer. Maybe as a result of the sluggish first Hobbit movie, Jackson spiced this one up in editing. There were some reshoots this summer—10 weeks, in fact, which is hardly cosmetic—so it's possible some of this caught fire there. Whatever the magic formula was, it works this time in every way An Unexpected Journey did not.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Rated PG-13 · 160 minutes · 2013
Official Site: www.thehobbit.com/index.html
Director: Peter Jackson
Producer: Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Alan Horn, Toby Emmerich, Ken Kamins and Carolyn Blackwood
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, John Bell, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Stephen Hunter, William Kircher, Sylvester McCoy, Graham McTavish, Michael Mizrahi, Dean O'Gorman, Mikael Persbrandt and Aidan Turner
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 3D
Rated PG-13 · 160 minutes · 2013
Official Site: www.thehobbit.com/index.html
Director: Peter Jackson
Producer: Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Alan Horn, Toby Emmerich, Ken Kamins and Carolyn Blackwood
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, John Bell, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Stephen Hunter, William Kircher, Sylvester McCoy, Graham McTavish, Michael Mizrahi, Dean O'Gorman, Mikael Persbrandt and Aidan Turner
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: An IMAX 3D Experience
Rated PG-13 · 160 minutes · 2013
Official Site: www.thehobbit.com/index.html
Director: Peter Jackson
Producer: Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Alan Horn, Toby Emmerich, Ken Kamins and Carolyn Blackwood
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, John Bell, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Stephen Hunter, William Kircher, Sylvester McCoy, Graham McTavish, Michael Mizrahi, Dean O'Gorman, Mikael Persbrandt and Aidan Turner

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What others are saying (17)

The North Coast Journal Weekly American Underbelly Out of the Furnace goes into the darkness by John J. Bennett 12/12/2013
The Coast Halifax The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug We're in the home stretch now, kids by Jacob Boon 12/12/2013
Creative Loafing Tampa What To Watch For: Movies American Hustle highlights an exciting season of movies to come. by Joe Bardi 08/29/2013
14 more reviews...
Inlander The Middle Part The Desolation of Smaug makes up for the slow start to The Hobbit trilogy by Ed Symkus 12/12/2013
East Bay Express The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Smaug gets in your eyes. by Kelly Vance 12/11/2013
Connect Savannah Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Flows more gracefully than its predecessor. by Matt Brunson 12/18/2013
The North Coast Journal Weekly Fire Beats Paper Sequel Smaug smokes Book Thief by John J. Bennett 12/19/2013
Charleston City Paper The Hobbit's second installment is better than the first Jackson and his team of writers, including Pacific Rim director Guillermo del Toro and Jackson's wife Fran Walsh, seem bent on creating mayhem out of what is actually a simple quest story. by Tom Meek 12/11/2013
Colorado Springs Independent Desolation of Smaug may as well be Lord of the Rings If The Hobbit is beginning to feel exhausting, it's not because the movies are long; it's from the strain of watching a movie devote so much energy to being something it's not. by Scott Renshaw 12/11/2013
NUVO The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug How could anyone complain about a two hour and forty minute avalanche of thrills and chills? by Ed Johnson-Ott 12/12/2013
Boise Weekly Cinema Stocking Stuffers The Hobbit is now playing and Big Eyes and Into the Woods hit the big screen on Christmas Day. by George Prentice 12/17/2014
Portland Mercury Hot Elf Action! Holy shit, you guys! The Hobbit is incredible! by J.R.R. Tolkien 12/11/2013
LA Weekly The Great and Terrible Hobbit Elves snore, it turns out. Their maidens make teensy-peen jokes and pine for the hottest of dwarves. And Bilbo Baggins, so concerned about his doilies just three hours of screen time ago, now punches his sword right through the trachea of a goblin -- and then looks rather proud of... by Alan Scherstuhl 12/12/2013
Creative Loafing Tampa The Hobbit heads into the dragon’s lair Peter Jackson’s new trilogy is looking up with The Desolation of Smaug. by Joe Bardi 12/11/2013

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