Second verse, same as the first, a little bit shorter and a little less worse.
With “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the heroes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy saga at last find their footing, and so does Peter Jackson’s epic telling of their tale. The jury is still out on whether it was a smart idea to turn “The Hobbit” (ostensibly a children’s book that served as Tolkien’s run-up for the far more ambitious “The Lord of the Rings”) into a three-movie three-ring circus, the final installment of which will arrive next Christmas. But where 2012’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” was bloated and aimless — a textbook case of elephantitus blockbusterus — the sequel has shape. Even better, it has forward momentum. As lumbering as “The Desolation of Smaug” gets, it still pulls you along for the ride, and every so often the ride thrills.
When last we saw the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his unmerry band of dwarves, they were — oh, hell, I don’t remember and you probably don’t either. But Bilbo had found that ring and had escaped the clutches of Gollum, who, sad to say, isn’t in this movie. (The character’s human analog, Andy Serkis, serves as second unit director.) “The Desolation of Smaug”— which despite its title is not a documentary about pollution levels in Middle-earth but rather a voyage across a wasteland to see a dragon — soon gets to the good stuff, which is the characters’ fraught journey through the forest called Mirkwood. If you’ve ever read the book, you know what that means: giant B-movie spiders. And not a moment too soon for a project so encrusted with self-important mythologizing.
The visionary mischief-maker Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) co-wrote the script and at one point was slated to direct this installment, and the Mirkwood scenes seem to carry his stamp: baroque, bulbous nightmare creatures skittering back and forth and the company shrouded in webs like casualties at sea. Gandalf (Ian McKellan) has gone off to confront the Necromancer — a sequence only alluded to in the book, but Jackson uses it to lash “The Hobbit” more closely to events in “LOTR” — and the dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) are on their way to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their underground kingdom and its treasure from the conquering Smaug.
I should probably mention here that if none of these names means anything to you, you can skip the sequel with clear conscience and go see one of the many better movies the end of the year has to offer. If, by contrast, you’ve read the books and invested the time, energy, and emotions in Tolkien’s otherworld, “The Desolation of Smaug” is an effective and affectionate rendering of one slice of it. The faithful may be dismayed by the inclusion of scenes and characters not in the book, but Jackson’s the sort of director who believes that if something can be visualized, it should. While that approach can demolish a delicate story like “The Lovely Bones,” it serves this material surprisingly well. Subtlety was never Tolkien’s strong suit, and it certainly isn’t the director’s.
One of the additions is an orc warrior named Azog (Manu Bennett), a footnote in Tolkien’s mythos who has been inflated into this project’s major villain. He and his slavering hordes are after the dwarves, the dwarves need to get to the Lonely Mountain before Durin’s Day (don’t ask), and — oh, look — here come the woodland elves headed by Legolas from “The Lord of the Rings,” slim and flaxen-haired and played once more by Orlando Bloom on a mythic quest to resurrect his career. “The Desolation of Smaug” quickly becomes a game of three-dimensional battle chess between dwarves, elves, orcs, and men rampaging across parapets and down boiling rapids. Some of these scenes are exciting; others feel as if you’re playing a video game with someone else’s thumbs.
(On a side note, how seriously can we take the forces of evil when they’re the lamest fighters in Middle or any other Earth? Despite the on-screen mayhem, our heroes get away with precisely one flesh wound among the lot. The bad guys, by contrast, are stabbed, crushed, decapitated, gutted, and shish-kebabbed, all in loving 3-D and — depending on the theater — 48 frames-per-second hyperrealism. The movie should be rated NO-17: No orcs under 17 admitted.)
Thankfully, the dwarves are more individualized this time around: Ken Stott turns Balin into the group’s touchingly flawed elder, and — fetch the stepladder — Aidan Turner’s Kili is allowed a smoldering cross-species romance with the elf warrioress Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who has a bone structure to turn even an Oxford don’s head. As Bard, the rebel leader of the humans of Lake-town, Luke Evans is grimly charismatic, which is good, since we’ll be seeing more of him in next year’s “The Hobbit: There and Back Again.” Less marvelous is the great British gadfly Stephen Fry, who plays the Master of Lake-town as if he were appearing onstage at a county fair.
And Bilbo? Freeman’s doughty little guy comes into his own in this installment, especially once the film lumbers into its third hour. The ring gives Bilbo courage and invisibility even as it sucks at his soul, and if the actor often looks impatient with the computer-generated folderol around him — the fantasy-action bigness so fanatically detailed yet so lacking in warmth or human imagination — that somehow only helps his character. In the climactic scenes inside the mountain, the tiny Bilbo goes head to head with Smaug, whose ego is as immense as his wingspan and whose mellifluous, bottom-heavy voice sidles and sneers in the tones of Benedict Cumberbatch.
As is the fashion with multipart movies these days — see the most recent “Hunger Games” — “The Desolation of Smaug” ends as if crashing into a wall, whereupon we’re brusquely shown the exits and told to come back next year. Closure is for weenies, I suppose, and restraint is for other directors. For now, Jackson has righted his sagging franchise and set it trundling on its way. Not all who wander are lost.