If you go
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” rated PG-13
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
Running time: 161 minutes
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage and Benedict Cumberbatch
Now playing at Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas and Craig’s West Theatre.
Last winter, we were reintroduced to a place that a decade before had captivated our imaginations. Reactions to the second attempt at cinematic greatness were varied, to say the least — some hated it, some were indifferent and others claimed, “I liked it, but …”
The good thing about “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is it likely will win over some who were put off by the changes made to a beloved classic. Still, the haters have an uphill battle.
The road is a long and difficult one as hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continues on an expedition along with a company of dwarves to reclaim their stolen homeland of Erebor. The experiences they’ve already had traversing Middle-earth have shaken them to the core, and even dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) aren’t feeling as certain about their chances of success as they were before.
Once Gandalf parts ways with the group, matters only get worse as they brave the horrors of Mirkwood Forest and incur the wrath of the elves who patrol it. Thanks to quick thinking by Bilbo — and the properties of a certain mysterious new possession — the dwarves find themselves out of harm’s way after these trials, but the closer they get to the Lonely Mountain, the sooner they’ll have to confront its single resident, the unspeakable monster known as Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Even faced with all this, there may be a menace greater than a dragon elsewhere as Gandalf explores rumors of powerful evil gathering its forces. The wizard’s curiosity leads him to find something that could be too big for even him to handle.
Freeman seems like a whole new hobbit in this installment — an intrepid adventurer rather than the prissy proprietor of Bag End we saw in “An Unexpected Journey.” The circle of gold he’s previously picked up as a souvenir certainly doesn’t hurt his confidence as he becomes the unintended hero of a quest he never wanted in the first place. But that same piece of jewelry is already having a poisonous effect on him.
Oh, well, it’s not like a dinky little ring can change the course of history. Er, wait a minute …
McKellen’s role is diminished but still vital as Gandalf, with he and fellow weaver of enchantments, the nutty Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), investigating what might be a reincarnation of an ancient darkness ready to strike once again, with plenty of orcs, goblins and wargs at its disposal.
Armitage is starting to grate a little as the dwarf king without a throne, whose years of being displaced have left him reckless in his pursuit of taking back what’s rightfully his from something that’s gotten quite comfortable amid a mountain of riches.
There may be no Gollum here, but Cumberbatch wears the motion-capture suit just as nicely, providing the chilling voice and deft movements of the avarice-driven dragon who has remained dormant for years, with most people of Middle-earth happy to just let him sleep.
And you thought you were cranky when your afternoon nap was cut short.
Smaug’s design rips to shreds the dragons of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Harry Potter” and other series, standing as an example of some of the ways Peter Jackson has upped his game following “The Lord of the Rings.” The look of locations like Lake-town — literally settled in the middle of a body of water — and the woodsy home of the elves — think Keebler mixed with Xanadu from “Citizen Kane” — are striking additions to the fantasy world first created by J.R.R. Tolkien.
All rendered with the high frame rate, it’s incredibly immersive, which may or may not blind you to the movie’s faults.
First of all, did we really need an appearance by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his unexplainable, freakishly blue eyes? His female counterpart, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) — a completely original character — is easier to take, though the forbidden love she shares with the dwarf Kíli (Aidan Turner) is a ridiculous addition to the story.
The shape-changer known as Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) hardly gets any screen time, while there’s a huge subplot written in for Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), making Tolkien fans wonder if there’s any strategy to which Jackson’s writing team adheres, especially given the questionable cut-off point that leads into a third film.
The idea of a pair of trilogies sounds better on paper than it’s starting to look, and it’s the prequel that gets the undue blame. Let’s at least save final judgment for the big ending.
“The Desolation of Smaug” works as a serviceable midway point, and it’s a good movie on its own terms, though it’s still a step down. The issue here is that Jackson is trying to follow something tremendous that worked as a compendium and three individual works by forcing a separate narrative to go by the same formula, creating a feeling of what Bilbo would call “butter scraped over too much bread.”
Face it — if you think giant spiders, a guy who transforms into a bear and a dragon guarding a hoard of treasure isn’t enough action, maybe the problem is you.
Contact Andy Bockelman at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.