Peter Jackson's overdrawn saga of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit continues in the ongoing trilogy's second episode, subtitled The Desolation of Smaug, which as it turns out, is not about bringing an end to air pollution in Middle Earth (I shudder imagine the size of Mt. Doom's carbon footprint). Smaug, of course, is the vain and ferocious dragon (voiced and mo-capped here by Benedict Cumberbatch) who has hoarded generations worth of stolen dwarf gold in the stony mountain keep of Erebor; the ancient kingdom which you'll recall young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and our intrepid band of heroes set out on an unexpected journey to recapture in last year's first installment.
The stakes heighten in this chapter, as Bilbo & Co., now well beyond the point of no return, draw ever closer to the villainous fire-breathing reptile, encountering all manner of other threats along the way. These include the usual orcs and wargs, but also a bearlike skin-changer, giant spiders (been there, done that), a menacing Necromancer, and suspicious wood elves among whom we meet Lord of the Rings mainstay Legolas. Shrewdly added to the proceedings after the first film was mildly criticized for its lopsided lack of female characters – Tolkien's fault, not the filmmakers' – is the elfin warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), an original creation of Jackson and his writing team intended to shoot a much-needed strong woman's presence into the testosterone-heavy cast. Unfortunately, she is eventually relegated to being the fulcrum of a silly romantic subplot.
And OH, the subplots! There's enough inconsequential material padding out the exorbitant 2-hour and 40-minute runtime (like Kleenex stuffed into an oversized D-cup) to make you think that the plot's many side-quests were written by Warner Bros' video game developers. The novelty of An Unexpected Journey – itself a movie that bore the staleness of over-familiarity – is now a distant memory. It's difficult not to feel like you've seen this movie three or four times before.
Mind you, by this point in his career, Jackson has had enough practice at evoking both the natural and digitally enhanced wonders of his native New Zealand to make any Tolkien adventure, however thinly stretched, mostly watchable and eye-catching dross. For all intents and purposes, that's what The Desolation of Smaug is. As always, the production is beautifully designed and the action is creatively staged, especially in one whitewater getaway that's more fun than a Barrel of Dwarfs. But even its most exciting set pieces run long and begin to lose their potency. This couldn't be more true than in the climactic encounter with Smaug, which Jackson allows to drag on (“drag-on”... get it?) for nearly forty minutes, only to render moot with a cliffhanger ending that proves more annoying than appetite-whetting.
As much as I understand that the middle portion of a trilogy is often difficult to pull off, it mustn't be understated that the biggest responsibility of that middle portion is to heighten anticipation for the finale. In all honesty, I can't say I'm at all excited for the third Hobbit movie due next year, except of course for my eagerness to see this ill-conceived enterprise finally brought to a close.
** out of ****