Now that’s more like it!  At least that’s what I was thinking for most of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

The middle chapter in director Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is a more focused, energetic film, but doesn’t end up being a significant
enough improvement over last year’s An Unexpected Journey to earn higher marks.

The Desolation of Smaug continues the quest for the kingdom of Erebor.  A company of dwarves (Along with hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the
wizard Gandalf) journey to reclaim their homeland from the villainous dragon, Smaug.

The dwarves are led by Thorin Oakenshield, the heir to the kingdom’s throne.  Richard Armitage is very good as the stoic and determined
Thorin, who has emerged as the most developed character in the series.

The film also introduces new subplots involving the men of Laketown and the elves of Mirkwood.

Jackson and company take full advantage of the dwarves’ stop in the Woodland Realm by reintroducing Orlando Bloom as Legolas in an
obvious attempt to throw in some star power.

It’s great to see him again, but his role in the story doesn’t amount to much more than an action figure.

Perhaps a more effective addition is Tauriel, played by Lost star Evangeline Lilly.  Tauriel is a character created for the film, but proves to be
an endearing figure and, like Legolas, a legitimate elven badass.  The pair delivers some genuine action thrills.

There are several outstanding set pieces, none better than the famous ‘Barrels out of Bond’ sequence.  In this, the dwarves escape elven
capture and elude orc attack by riding down a river inside empty barrels.  The sequence is a triumph of direction and precision editing, and
it’s a lot of fun.

It’s also worth noting that these furious action sequences show off Jackson’s much-maligned high frame rate camerawork much better than
An Unexpected Journey did.  The film looks incredibly sharp and smooth in spite of the frantic movement and 3D visuals.  Fine image detail
is extraordinary even amid the chaos.

The visual effects are once again outstanding, and the production design is even better.  There are some truly awe-inspiring examples of
art direction.  It’s a true visual feast.

There’s a sequence where Gandalf (The brilliant Ian McKellan once again) explores a set of tombs buried deep within a mountain that I
found absolutely stunning for its evocative dark fantasy design.

Howard Shore’s score is also superb.  His complex thematic writing and epic sound are an essential part of Jackson’s middle-earth films.

Despite all this incredible artistry and production value, I still feel The Hobbit films have underused their namesake.

Martin Freeman is an inspired Bilbo, but too frequently he fades into the background of a screenplay that tries hard to jam in enough
material to justify its excessive length.

Thankfully, as with the ‘Riddles in the Dark’ sequence in the previous film, the most iconic moments from the novel are brilliantly realized.  
This time, Bilbo’s confrontation with Smaug earns that honor.  The infamous dragon is a fantastically conceived monstrosity, voiced with
impressive menace by Benedict Cumberbatch and brought to life via superlative animation.

Smaug amusingly swims through his mountains of gold a la Scrooge McDuck.

I also think he must be a very lonely dragon living inside the Lonely Mountain, because he seems to forget he can simply breathe fire to kill
Bilbo and the dwarves at any time.  I guess he just wants to chase them around.  His only alternative is burying himself in gold again.

It’s during this final barrage of action following the great interaction between Bilbo and the dragon that The Desolation of Smaug begins to
overstay its welcome.  Jackson’s ‘more is more’ approach worked when the material supported it in his masterful Lord of the Rings trilogy,
but it has hindered these Hobbit films.

The climactic action is over-the-top to say the least, with the dwarves endlessly battling Smaug, Gandalf fighting orcs and Legolas (In a
totally unnecessary sequence) squaring off against even more orcs.

Jackson throws everything possible into his film except an ending.  The Desolation of Smaug’s final, and perhaps most egregious, offense
is an unforgivably abrupt ending.

There are great films that have ended on cliffhangers, but to end in the middle of a major action sequence is not satisfying in the least.  Had
it not been for this, I probably could have still given the film a hearty recommendation.  As a standalone film, however, there is no
resolution whatsoever; which is surprising given Jackson’s history of handling continuing narratives.

The Desolation of Smaug is a more entertaining film than An Unexpected Journey, but it’s still not a good one.  There are flashes of
greatness to be sure, and Jackson has shown real inspiration in recreating many of the most memorable moments from the source
material.  Unfortunately, the excess has gotten in the way of good storytelling, making Smaug a film that is bloated and incomplete at the
same time.

There is enough good here to warrant hope that next year’s finale will finally bring it all together.  Through two films, however, The Hobbit
has been a fascinating (albeit entertaining) editorial mess.

* * ½
(out of four)
Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter
Jackson & Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard
Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly

Music by: Howard Shore

Cinematography by: Andrew Lesnie

Released: December 13, 2013; 161 Minutes