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Review of the Week: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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The natural instinct after sitting through Peter Jackson's The Desolation of Smaug (pronounced "smowg") is to question why The Hobbit — a shorter novel than any of the individual books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy — has been trisected for the big screen. The 1977 TV movie The Hobbit clocked in at 90 minutes. The Desolation of Smaug (part 2 of 3) is 161.

And to its credit, Smaug moves along much more briskly (with no shortage of vigor and close-range Elven archery) than its plodding predecessor, the high frame rate of which drowned out criticisms of the pacing. And I know the issue of The Hobbit's segmentation has been debated exhaustively elsewhere. One senses, at the very least, that unlike the final installment of the Twilight series or the upcoming Hunger Games finale(s) — egregious examples, both, of Hollywood's orientation toward cash over entertainment value — The Hobbit's massive running time and trilogization are symptoms more of Peter Jackson than of Hollywood. He's addicted to the Tolkien universe and wants to capture as much of it as possible.

Except here's the thing: Jackson's Tolkien universe has now superseded even Tolkien's. Embellishment is necessary in any adaptation — Gandalf the Grey said as much in the first Hobbit film —  but in Smaug, we've got love stories and fight sequences and characters that never existed or that were only fleetingly mentioned in the novel.

That said, these are mighty fight sequences. Jackson has upped the ante yet again, creating impossibly choreographed, extended, highly mobile battle scenes that feel extracted from some sort of elaborate video game interface.

In one, Bilbo and his company of ornery dwarves careen down a river in barrels, tossing weaponry among themselves and then tossing themselves among themselves, while Legolas and Tauriel (a major character in the film, invented out of whole cloth by Peter Jackson, portrayed by Lost's Evangeline Lilly) let fly endless bulls-eye arrows at the faces and torsos of uncountable orcs while dancing along the riverbanks at roughly the gravity-defying clip of Disney's Tarzan.   

The film, compared to the first, is in fact much more fun. There are no fireside dirges or somber voiceovers. There is much movement and fighting and a humongous dragon to boot (a CGI marvel voiced by the very important Benedict Cumberbatch).

But The Desolation of Smaug, in the most basic ways, is an episode. It lacks the insularity of all three Lord of the Rings films and even the thematic unifiers of the first Hobbit. You can't watch this one without having seen the first and expect to have any clue what's going on.

There are too many bizarre interruptions, one-off characters, and storylines that are either wrapping up from the first film or waiting for resolution in the finale. All these little creatures are still going after treasure and still trying to reclaim a dwarvish kingdom and still having merry mini-adventures along the way.

If the novel itself is any indication, the action of The Hobbit is more or less complete at the end of Smaug, so who knows what might transpire in There and Back Again other than a ginormous battle and six or seven endings. But if this film is any indication at all, we know it'll be three-and-a-half hours long.   

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