The second part of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy goes a long way — and at 2 1 / 2 hours, I do mean long — toward righting the wrongs of the first movie, which was even longer. The first installment of the adaptation of the beloved fantasy-adventure novel was bloated, boring and slow to get started. Jackson’s handsome new addition to the canon, subtitled “The Desolation of Smaug,” is a fleet, fun redemption of the film franchise, the first chapter of which had J.R.R. Tolkien fans crying foul.
Whether the tale of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and 13 dwarves in search of lost treasure will appeal to anyone besides fans of the 1937 book is dubious. Still, for those of us who love Tolkien, the new movie is a treat.
Even Jackson’s seemingly sacrilegious addition of the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) — a character from “The Lord of the Rings” who appears nowhere in Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” — feels sinfully good. So does the outright invention of a female elf character named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a sort of pointy-eared Lara Croft who’s nowhere in any of the books.
Purists may moan that these additions simply aren’t needed, but they certainly don’t hurt. What’s more, they’re actually cool as heck. With his rapid-fire archery skills, flowing blond locks and elven hotness, Legolas was an audience favorite from the “LOTR” movies, and his insertion in “Smaug” is not unwelcome.
Neither is Tauriel’s presence, despite the whiff of incongruity that results from her flirtation with Kili (Aidan Turner), one of the dwarves. To put it in terms that a layperson can understand, the idea that an elf and a dwarf might fall in love is sort of like the idea that a cat and dog might mate. This would strain the credulity of even the most flexible Middle-earth scholar.
But no matter. The sexing up of Tolkien’s text somehow works, and only nitpickers should object.
It also helps that “Smaug” starts with a bang, keeping up the action with such intensity that you won’t have time to quibble about silly details. Instead of wasting half the movie, as the first one did, stuck in a claustrophobic hobbit-hole with a bunch of drunken dwarves, “Smaug” opens with a pulse-pounding — and yes, photogenic — chase scene. Mere seconds in, we watch a pack of bloodthirsty orcs pursue our hobbit hero and his dwarf companions over the Misty Mountains — where, as you will recall, we last left them — to the home of Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a shape-shifter who first appears in the form of a giant bear.
This is good stuff. (Or, maybe not, if you’re one of those people who inexplicably prefer realistic movies with, you know, marooned astronauts.)
After that rousing curtain-raiser, the movie follows the protagonists through a number of obstacles standing between them and their assault on the Lonely Mountain, the dwarves' ancestral home, now occupied by the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), from whom they hope to reclaim purloined riches.
First, the company must pass through the enchanted forest of Mirkwood, where they tussle with giant CGI spiders. Next, they’re imprisoned in the stronghold of the woodland elves. (Told you elves didn’t like dwarves.) Their escape — in barrels carried by churning river rapids — is one of the movie’s great action sequences, and it looks simply sensational in 3-D. Like the first film, “An Unexpected Journey,” “Smaug” also will be offered in Imax, as well as in Jackson’s pet technology, High Frame Rate (HFR) video, which makes everything ugly. Skip it, if you know what’s good for you.
Finally, the journey leads them to the village of Laketown, where they prepare for their confrontation with Smaug.
Much of this has all the gluteus-clenching intensity of a good video game, but there’s also a thematic subtext here — as there was in the “LOTR” films — of good vs. evil and honor vs. treachery. Bilbo spends much of this movie trying to resist the temptation of the ring he found in “An Unexpected Journey,” which holds both power and corruption. This enriches and deepens an admittedly silly story and satisfies a more mature palate, imbuing what might otherwise be seen as a children’s book with a kind of darkness that, paradoxically, gladdens the heart.
That was the problem with the first film. Too much of it was like a fairy tale, without the ogres.
Well, the ogres are here now. And they are, thank heavens, the stuff of nightmares.
★ ★ ★
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violent and frightening imagery. 156 minutes.