A greedy, egomaniacal dragon takes to the skies at the end of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but he might as well be a phoenix rising from the ashes director Peter Jackson’s middling movie output in recent years.
I can hear the outraged fanboys lashing out. “But this is Oscar winner Peter Jackson,” they might argue, “the kiwi auteur who garnered a cult following with inventive low-budget horror fare before making a splash internationally by pairing up Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as two murderous girls infatuated with each other. And then came a little trilogy that cemented his name as one of the foremost purveyors of fantasy on the big screen.” Mmm-hmm. Have you actually seen Jackson’s last couple of movies?
Don’t answer that, readers. We need to get back to Bilbo Baggins. At the end of last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the meek but crafty half-ling (the dependable Martin Freeman) had earned the respect of hunky dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) as they continued on their (seemingly endless) quest to find a translucent precious stone that would allow the furry heartthrob to claim his place as ruler. Couple of obstacles, though: a) the Arkenstone is being guarded by a bonafide fire-breather – the titular Smaug – inside the Lonely Mountain and b) Bilbo (aka Frodo’s uncle) hasn’t actually been told he’s the one intended to fetch the glowing gem in what is probably a suicide mission.
Raise your hands if sitting through Journey was a tough slog. I don’t blame you; I struggled too. Which makes it all the gratifying to report that The Desolation of Smaug, the second chapter in the trilogy bringing J. R. R. Tolkien’s pre-Lord of the Rings tale to the screen, restores the sweeping momentum that fueled Jackson’s previous trek to Middle Earth. This is a re-energized Jackson, still prone to self-indulgent asides that bog down the action, but far more disciplined in his grip of the narrative. Smaug is fleet-flooted and brisk where its predecessor was plodding and overstuffed. It’s propelled by a noteworthy sense of middle-installment urgency that too many viewers take for granted.
Jackson actually hits the ground running with a brief prologue chronicling the first meeting between Thorin and Gandalf (Ian McKellen, capably donning the pointy hat and wooden staff once again), in which they hash out the blueprints of the ensuing mission. From that point, Jackson, aided by a richly literate screenplay credited to him, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro (who was attached to direct at one point), plops us back where he’d left us off last time.
Winds of war tear Gandalf apart from the group on his own hush-hush mission, leaving Thorin, Bilbo and the rest of their motley crew of Dwarves to fend off bloodthirsty Orcs, territorial giant spiders and, in a delicious turn by Lee Pace, the current King of the Elves, the vain, self-centered Thranduil. In fact, Smaug features a little more political intrigue than we’ve accustomed to seeing from Jackson. As they get closer to Smaug’s crib, Bilbo and company wind up in Laketown, a once thriving commerce hub, now reduced to a decaying cesspool overruled by the spectacularly ineffectual Master (a rather underused Stephen Fry). Echoes of Rohan abound as a wary merchant (Luke Evans) grudgingly agrees to help the expedition party navigate Laketown’s deceitful waters.
Smaug still suffers from some of Journey‘s content overkill, but for the most part, the perilous scenarios Jackson cooks up this time around unfold with a fluidity that recalls his work on Lord of the Rings and King Kong, particularly an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink chase in which the Dwarves, riding on barrels, attempt to outpace Elves and Orcs. The sequence is exhilarating in a way none of this past summer’s tentpole titles dreamed of. And I think that’s because underneath the stunning, state-of-the-art CGI, Jackson’s a very old-fashioned storyteller. Take away the newfangled technology and Smaug uncannily comes across as a new millennium equivalent of a matinee serial, and like the films it resembles in terms of structure, it ends with a cliffhanger so abrupt, the ending of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire feels like the epitome of closure by comparison.
Before Jackson slams on the brakes, though, we finally get to hang out with the titular dragon, and as voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, the character, tactile in that motion-capture way the folks at f/x house Weta have perfected, is a treat. He might look like the evil cousin of Falcor, The NeverEnding Story‘s benign luck dragon, but the way he toys with Bilbo like a cat would to a mouse he’s planning to have for a snack is reminiscent of The Jungle Book‘s Shere Khan, only far more conceited. He’s great fun to hang out with … and so is the movie he’s in. Just don’t screw up when you reach the finish line next year, Mr. Jackson, because no Ring of Power will be able to spare you from the wrath of the Middle Earth acolytes.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug starts Friday, Dec. 13 in wide release. If I were you, I’d skip the high-frame ratio format, which makes the movie look like a high-tech daytime soap opera.