Five super-sized movies in, it’s time to stop treating films based on J.R.R. Tolkien novels with more reverence than other popcorn films.
It’s freeing to acknowledge that I zoned out during all the grave talk of legacy and honor in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” then tuned back in for the shiny objects (a ring here, a dwarf-kingdom “arkenstone” there), thrilling action sequences and lifelike computer-generated creatures.
Enabling such a disclosure is director and co-screenwriter Peter Jackson’s own approach to “Smaug,” the fifth Middle-Earth film he has directed, after “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and last year’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
Jackson is not zealously guarding the integrity of Tolkien’s work. “Smaug” is the second of three mega-length “Hobbit” films drawn from Tolkien’s novel. It’s hard to imagine Tolkien envisioning that someday his 300-page novel for young people would become nine hours of film.
Jackson and his co-writers also created a character not in the book – the red-haired, arrow-shooting female elf warrior Tauriel (a lovely, capable Evangeline Lilly, from TV’s “Lost”). Tolkien might have thought up this character himself had he only seen “Brave” or “The Hunger Games.”
“Smaug” is such modified Tolkien that the exalted standards of the author’s devotees, some of whom found “Unexpected Journey” too lightweight, no longer apply. Therefore, we will judge “Smaug” alongside fellow (usually comic-book) blockbusters that live and die on action scenes and computer effects.
By those standards, “Smaug” is a gas, even if its “fantasy” violence pushes its PG-13 rating even further than most blockbusters do. (A chopped-off orc head still counts as a chopped-off head, ratings board, especially when it comes at the audience in 3-D.)
Unlike the sluggish “Journey,” “Smaug” gets moving fast, catching up to hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and rightful dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and Thorin’s band of dwarfs on their quest to reclaim the lost dwarf kingdom.
The film’s first section includes a giant-spider attack that’s equally exciting and chilling, the spiders cocooning our heroes with their sticky webbing. There also are fights with orcs – those creatures who look like nuclear-winter WWE wrestlers – and a run-in with the giant bear. The bear shape-shifts back into a man (Mikael Persbrandt) whose feathered eyebrows and animalistic facial hair make him look like Lloyd Bridges in a production of “Cats.”
“Smaug” is being offered in 2-D, 3-D and in too-vivid “high frame rate” 3-D. I saw it in less-distracting regular 3-D, and the technology enhanced its visual power. This is especially true with Smaug (given deep, scary voice by Benedict Cumberbatch), the talking, killing dragon that destroyed the dwarf kingdom and still poses a big threat.
Without giving too much away about Smaug’s physicality, which is revealed in a deliberate manner, let’s just say the creature ranks with Gollum and King Kong among Jackson’s and his Weta Digital company’s CGI masterworks.
Ian McKellen’s dependably wry wizard Gandalf is engaged elsewhere for much of the dwarfs’ journey, thus throwing the performance emphasis on the able Freeman and Armitage.
Freeman effectively alternates worry and determination as Bilbo, advance man for the dwarfs in dangerous situations. It’s Bilbo who risks all to retrieve the glowing arkenstone, heirloom of the dwarf kingdom.
Armitage lends more complexity to Thorin in this second “Hobbit” film. Eagerness and impatience disrupt Thorin’s usual reserve as Armitage shows the character’s fierce desire to restore the dwarf kingdom.
Also impressive is all the beauty on display in “Smaug,” from the stunning New Zealand landscapes to the actors.
The “Rings” films offered bountiful handsomeness in the forms of Viggo Mortensen, Karl Urban, Sean Bean and Orlando Bloom. The first “Hobbit” film, populated by bulbous noses and hairy hobbit feet, relied heavily on Armitage to carry the attractiveness burden.
(Don’t act like looks don’t matter in these films. Thousands of fan-fiction stories beg to differ.)
In “Smaug,” Aidan Turner and Luke Evans join Armitage in intense good looks and in assuming prominent roles. Turner plays Thorin’s nephew Kili, and Evans a barge pilot who transports Bilbo and the dwarves. Bloom’s Legolas also is back and in fine, elven-enforcer form. No one could look more light-footed or put together while also killing countless orcs.
There’s even a love triangle involving the dwarf Kili and the elves Legolas and Tauriel. Lent physical prowess and compassion by Lilly, Tauriel is a welcome addition to Middle-Earth. She’s also clearly not a height-ist, which increases her options considerably within Middle-Earth’s dating scene.
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
* * *
Cast: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom
Director: Peter Jackson
Rated PG-13 (extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images)