After turning J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth into a bloated, brain-numbing travelogue in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," Peter Jackson strikes back with a sequel slightly less bloated and slightly less brain-numbing, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug."
Granted, it wouldn't have taken much for Jackson to improve upon last year's relatively inert "Journey." If anything, Jackson seems to be overcompensating for that by pumping "Smaug" full of graphic violence not seen in a PG-13 adventure since "Return of the King."
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"★ ★ ½
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Other: A Warner Bros. release. Rated PG-13 for violence, scary images. 161 minutes
Arrows penetrate necks and pierce eyeballs. One elf archer scores two Orcs with a single shaft! Heads roll and bounce from the bodies of several decapitated warriors.
These acts, despite their relative bloodlessness, push well beyond the parental expectations of a PG-13 rating. Were the parents on the Classifications and Ratings Administration asleep through this movie? (If it were "Journey," I'd understand.)
Just by beginning with the quest in progress, "Smaug" improves on its predecessor.
Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), a gaggle of dwarves and hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) travel the dangerous road to Lonely Mountain to defeat the deadly dragon Smaug (voiced by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch), and to reinstate Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) as the rightful king of Erebor.
Two key action set pieces raise the bar on Jackson's overly lengthy adventure, front-loaded with dialogue endlessly warning of the dangers ahead. ("We have been blind!" Gandalf yelps, "and in that blindness, our enemy has returned!")
In the first action sequence, the travelers confront giant spiders that bundle them up in webbing and store them for late-night snacks.
Later, the movie's piece de resistance unfolds as the heroes jump into barrels and shoot down a rapid river while an army of evil Orcs gives chase, firing arrows and engaging in hand-to-claw combat in a breathlessly orchestrated sequence that plays out with Rube-Goldbergian inspiration and precision.
Despite the inventiveness in these sequences, Jackson's love of bloat and visual grandiloquence robs them of their maximum impact. His "longer is more" approach almost pushes them into drudgery.
Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and (announced original director) Guillermo del Toro fill out the screenplay to this 161 minute project by creating a romantic subplot between an unusually tall and good-looking dwarf (Aiden Turner) and a fetching elf archer named Tauriel ("Lost" regular Evangeline Lilly), a female character not found in Tolkien's male-dominated novel.
The filmmakers also bring back Orlando Bloom's elf archer Legolas for no apparent narrative purpose beyond adding some extra recognized star power to the movie.
Of course, all roads lead to Lonely Mountain where the highly anticipated confrontation between the diminutive Bilbo and the great dragon Smaug takes place. At first, Bilbo thinks he'll be undetected while searching for a magical gem among the mountains of gold and valuable trinkets in Smaug's lair.
High tension quickly devolves into comic realization when it appears this fearsome dragon really wants to be Auric Goldfinger, a James Bond villain who prefers talking his prisoner to death rather than toasting him with combustible halitosis.
This isn't the only part of "Smaug" apparently inspired by 007 clichés, especially in scenes where the bad guys, despite firing off a kajillon arrows, remain incapable of killing a single elf, dwarf, hobbit or wizard. Ever.
Meanwhile, the good guys never fail with their bows and arrows as they slaughter the enemy with gleeful abandon.
At the end of "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Catching Fire," viewers left the theater thinking, "Wow! What a terrific movie! I can't wait to see the next one!"
The end of "Smaug"?
It's closer to "What a pretty good movie! What? It's not over?"
But it will be on Dec. 17, 2014.