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The Desolation of Smaug' never quite catches fire

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The Desolation of Smaug' The Desolation of Smaug'

Second installment of 'The Hobbit' better than the first

I've discussed the dangers of 'Middle Movie Syndrome' or MMS before. As film studios increasingly take it upon themselves to trot out planned trilogies, we too often see second films that spend most of their time recapping the previous film and setting up the subsequent one, leaving these middle movies as little more than placeholders, filled with recycled exposition and frequent foreshadowing.

I assumed that Peter Jackson's second installment of 'The Hobbit' - subtitled 'The Desolation of Smaug' - would succumb to the dreaded MMS. But it didn't by most measures it is a better, more engaging film than the first. 

But there are still plenty of problems.

This installment follows the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, 'The World's End') on his voyage to help the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, TV's 'Strike Back') reclaim his birthright as the King Under the Mountain. Bilbo and Thorin are joined by a ragtag collection of dwarves, along with wizard extraordinaire Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, 'The Wolverine').

The band of travelers encounters constant opposition in their journey. They battle through the sinister forest known as Mirkwood, find themselves imprisoned in the cells of the Wood Elves, sneak their way through the human settlement of Laketown all while being doggedly pursued by a diligent (and constantly changing) group of orcs in the employ of the Dark Lord himself before finding their way into the mountain, which is where they find the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch, '12 Years a Slave') savagely guarding his enormous hoard of treasure and where Bilbo must come up with a way to relieve the dragon of the mysterious and powerful Arkenstone so that Thorin might reclaim his throne.

Tolkien purists are going to struggle with this movie. Not only has Jackson imported 'Lord of the Rings' characters who aren't even in 'The Hobbit' namely Legolas (Orlando Bloom, 'Zulu') for significant roles, he's gone so far as to just invent a character named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, 'Real Steel') and stick her in the middle of the action (and a kind of stupid love triangle).

Many of the complaints that dogged 'An Unexpected Journey' remain in 'Desolation.' Again, the feeling of bloat is omnipresent; while this film doesn't feel quite as overly padded as the first movie, there's no escaping the feeling that there are far too many traveling sequences and every action set piece is too long by half. Perhaps the biggest offender and one that technically fits both criteria is the interminable barrel escape. It goes on for so long that by its halfway mark, you've almost forgotten why they're in the stupid barrels in the first place.

That scene also calls the viewer's attention to the unevenness of the CGI work. There are some absolutely exquisite effects in 'The Desolation of Smaug' the dragon itself is masterfully rendered, for instance but there are others that feel like they were done on a short deadline and an even shorter budget; the aforementioned barrel escape regrettably falls into the latter category.

That isn't to say that the movie is wholly lacking. There are some absolutely riveting parts to this film and when there's some urgency to the goings-on, there's no denying just how compelling this story can be. Freeman is excellent as usual as Bilbo; without the soul he brings to the proceedings, there would be a real danger of this film feeling empty. Armitage is good, as is McKellen they're both embracing the material. And Cumberbatch is great as the sinister Smaug; the scenes with the dragon and the hobbit are among the film's best.

All told, film number two is definitely better than the first installment.

Still and one hates to beat a dead horse, but there's no getting around it 'The Desolation of Smaug' suffers the most from unnecessary length. There's a really good two-hour movie there it just takes two hours and 45 minutes to watch it. 

[3.5 out of 5]

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