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In Theaters: THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)

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THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
(US/New Zealand - 2013)

Directed by Peter Jackson.  Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro.  Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch,  Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly, Cate Blanchett, Lee Pace, Stephen Fry, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Aidan Turner, Sylvester McCoy, Graham McTavish, Jed Brophy, Mikael Persbrandt, Ryan Gage, Manu Bennett, Lawrence Makoare. (PG-13, 161 mins)

The second installment of Peter Jackson's HOBBIT trilogy is a no-expense-spared visual stunner, but again suffers from the bloat of Jackson and his writing team padding a 300-page book into what will amount to somewhere around nine hours of cinema.  I'm not saying there's an etched-in-stone rule for film adaptations of books, but if you can read the book in less time than it takes to watch the movie, you might be overdoing it.  Jackson was able to convey the entire epic LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy in three films, but the recurring--and justified--criticism of this latest venture is that The Hobbit is a comparatively smaller-scale, less grandiose novel, but it's still taking him three overlong films to tell the story thanks to the addition of material from Tolkien's The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales.  There's simply no reason other than the greed of getting fans to pay for three movies that this couldn't have been one three-hour film.  This frequently becomes a problem when a visionary filmmaker unveils a game-changer and is then granted carte blanche to do whatever they want.  He may not be the insufferable asshole that James Cameron is, but that doesn't make Jackson's self-indulgence any less problematic and off-putting.

Harsh words, perhaps, but I didn't dislike THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG.  It looks terrific (I saw this in regular 3-D instead of the stagy-looking High Frame Rate 3-D, which is Jackson's preferred vision), the performances are excellent, and there's some inspired set pieces, most notably the barrel escape from the castle of Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace).  That's just one stop on the journey of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who's accompanying a group of dwarves led by the heroic Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to obtain the Arkenstone from the dragon Smaug, who long ago took control of Lonely Mountain from Oakenshied's ancestors.  SMAUG really consists of a handful of set pieces stretched out to extreme lengths.  Whatever spectacle is achieved--the giant spiders, the barrel escape, and eventually, the showdown with Smaug (wonderfully voiced and the face motion-captured by Benedict Cumberbatch)--each goes on forever.  Before the heroes end up imprisoned in Thranduil's castle, they cross paths with elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly).  Legolas, a fan favorite of the LOTR books and films, is the son of Thranduil but was not in Tolkien's The Hobbit, and is only here to make Bloom part of this trilogy as well (he's also been given that distracting, waxy CGI sheen that the original trilogy's returning actors got in AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY to make him look younger, though considering Legolas is already several hundred years old, it hardly seems necessary).  Tauriel is a character completely invented by Jackson, and much time is devoted to her mutual crush on dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), a subplot that the audience will find almost as irritating as Legolas does.  So, it's not enough that he's bloating the novel into three films by incorporating material from other Tolkien works, but now he's creating additional characters and plotlines?    Just adapt the book, Mr. Jackson.  I'm no Tolkien purist and it's been years since I've read it, but you're fixing something that isn't broken.

Amidst the endless and eventually exhausting action sequences--yes, Jackson resorts to that zoomy, circling video-game look with characters pinballing around the frame--there's a lot to appreciate in the performances.  Freeman is spot-on as Bilbo and Armitage is again a strong Oakenshield.  The camaraderie among the dwarves is nicely-handled, Luke Evans does some good work as Bard, a widowed, down-on-his-luck boatman who helps smuggle the crew into Esgaroth, and Stephen Fry is amusingly hammy as the callous Master of Lake-town, a sort-of Middle-Earth one-percenter prone to bitching that the commoners want food, shelter, and work.  Jackson made some late-in-the-game editing decisions and bumped some scenes to next year's THERE AND BACK AGAIN, resulting in Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Andy Serkis (Gollum), and Christopher Lee (Saruman) getting cut from SMAUG, and Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) reduced to one shot.  Presumably, these changes affected Ian McKellen's Gandalf as well.  McKellen gets top-billing here but only has a few scenes.  After leaving Bilbo and the dwarves to attend to other business, he runs into Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and has a confrontation with the Necromancer (also Cumberbatch), and...that's it.  Absent for long stretches of time, McKellen's got maybe 10-12 minutes of screen time here, and it's one of the film's major letdowns.  He owns this character and it's an absolute joy watching him relish playing it.  But hey, at least we've got a budding romance between Kili and Tauriel to look forward to in the next film.






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