Thorin Oakenshield and his loyal band of adventurers continue their arduous quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from the legendary dragon Smaug in the second installment of Peter Jackson's epic Hobbit trilogy, an occasionally exciting yet mostly lumbering sequel that proves you can indeed have too much of a good thing.
Originally conceived as a two-movie arc but later expanded into a trilogy, the Hobbit franchise reveals Jackson to be the Judd Apatow of fantasy filmmaking -- so enamored with his own monumental vision of a simple story that its very essence is left to drown in a sea of overindulgence. Looking back, we should have seen this coming from his bloated 2005 remake of King Kong, but given the big gorilla's own girth and the advances of special effects since 1933, it seemed fitting to let a contemporary director run a little wild with the concept. His films still contain flashes of true beauty and inspiration, so when it came time for Jackson to helm the Lord of the Rings, it felt only natural that he should be permitted to split the three-volume tome into a feature trilogy. At 544 minutes total (for the theatrical versions), the Lord of the Rings is a formidable film series for even exceedingly patient movie lovers. At 170 and 161 minutes, respectively, the first two chapters of Jackson's Hobbit trilogy mirror their sister series' length, but whereas J.R.R. Tolkien's the Lord of the Rings runs in the range of 1,200 pages, The Hobbit is roughly 300 pages long.
If all of this seems like a particularly Jacksonian way of saying that the Hobbit films are too long, you get the point. Together with screenwriting partners Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, New Zealand's one-time splatter-meister has fashioned one of his generation's most vividly realized fantasy worlds, and populated it with wondrous mythical beasts that seem no less flesh and blood than the actors they share the screen with. Men tower over dwarfs and trolls tower over men, and all are equally believable as they fight before our unblinking eyes. But at some point it becomes a mere spectacle, and as numerous sequences of the screenplay echo the beats of the previous installment (the party are imprisoned by an enemy, Bilbo summons the courage to save his crew from certain death, Bilbo matches wits with a CG menace), the screenwriters have a difficult time keeping us enthralled. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug feels like a raucous pop gem that's been remixed to death, its vital essence drained by good intentions gone awry. Meanwhile, with the levity of the first film a distant memory, the overall mood here is dour and oppressive; yes, the barrel ride down the river -- with elves firing off arrows and orcs' heads flying -- displays the magic of fantasy cinema at its swashbuckling best, but for every thrill like that there are ten pace-deadening scenes in which the group ponder, brood, and slog, diminishing the impact of the film's genuinely inspired moments.
In terms of characterization, the actors bring just as much energy and intensity to their roles as they did the first time out, and on occasion, those quiet moments in the screenplay allow us to get to know them a bit better (as with an amusing cross-species romance between a particularly handsome dwarf and a smitten elf). Lee Pace brings an earthy air of nobility to the role of Thranduil -- an unpredictable shape-shifter who's the last of his kind; Luke Evans adds a human touch as Bard the Bowman, who aids the group at a crucial juncture; and Stephen Fry is a wormy delight as the power-drunk Master of Laketown. It's a treat to see Orlando Bloom return as Legolas, yet it's Benedict Cumberbatch who steals the show here without so much as showing his face, much like Andy Serkis previously did in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bellowing his lines from what sounds like a deep furnace, Cumberbatch makes his Smaug a cunning, nightmarish creature of wrath and fury. Even the ferocious giant spiders that nearly devour the entire party early on have nothing on him, and as his voice reverberates in your bones, you'll fear what he's capable of. Set deep inside the Lonely Mountain, Smaug's climactic fight against the dwarfs and the noble Bilbo Baggins is fantasy cinema at its absolute finest. Even though you may be exhausted by the time it happens, the cliff-hanger finale of this middle chapter will ensure that you'll be there on the opening day of the final installment, despite knowing in your heart of hearts that this journey should never have taken this long.