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Cinema Signal: This major epic shows a storytelling passion which isn't 100% conveyed to critical viewers. Amber-green light. MOBILE version |
. "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"

In this tale of recovering that which has been taken, a rich redemption awaits the Dwarves of Erebor as well as enrichment for Warner Bros. who released it as the middle chapter of J.R.R Tolkien's 1937 creation of the Middle Kingdom (after first envisioning it as two films). It is epic; it is packed with action; it is a delight of detail and design for the most critical eye; and, as a movie, it is too long. But, that's how things go in the kingdom of moviemaking these days.

Director Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings"), co-writing with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, captures the adventure of thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and accompanied by hobbit Bilbo Baggins (genial Martin Freeman, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy") who was convinced by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, "X-Men: The Last Stand") to undertake the perilous journey with them to the Lonely Mountain where their ancestral treasure, including the priceless Arkenstone heirloom stolen by the gold-loving dragon, Smaug (smugly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).

Along the way, the party is more or less assisted by the elvin archers Legolas (Orlando Bloom, "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End") and gorgeously fearless Tauriel (fascinating Evangeline Lilly, "Real Steel") and their modest but effective army, while Gandalf excuses himself for a confrontation that connects this story to "The Lord of the Rings," making it a prequel.

Perils follow them every step of the way on the dwarves' journey, starting with their passage through the Black Forest of Mirkwood where they encounter a horde of giant black spiders. The band of little men show their battle credentials to the point of incredibility, but it makes for a skin-raising sequence that sets the tone for the developments ahead.

Near death experiences caused by such creatures as the Orcs, led by the savage Azog, dog their way through the underbrush, heightening the drama, with last-second saviors, like Bilbo, Gandalf and the haughty Legolas keeping the quest alive.

Bilbo, this gentle man without the battle skills of his combat-ready mates, settles the question of why he is considered so valuable to the enterprise by his superior intellect and strategic thinking (and a magic ring that makes him invisible). This he does with a steadiness and respect for his companions, equally driven by their willingness to die in their attempt at redeeming the crime against their forefathers, the task they were born to do.

They finally reach the home of their forefathers, Laketown, from which they can see the Lonely Mountain on the horizon. The watery port city is masterfully designed as a macabre and rotting place, beautiful in its decay from better days and smarter rule than the one provided by its dissolute Master (Stephen Fry, "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"). The people and the economy are at the edge of ruin since Smaug came out of his mountain lair to wreak havoc and inflict desolation years before.

Which makes the dwarves and company curious interlopers amongst the villagers whose fear of another dragon visit roils in the depth of every breast, along with a yearning for the prosperity that was once theirs to enjoy.

The entire concept (and production budget) of "The Hobbit" tale brought to visual reality is a worthy use of the technical facilities available to filmmakers today. From the exquisite New Zealand locations to Jackson's brilliant craftsmen, his movie is marked by the high visual standards that production designer Dan Hennah, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, motion capture technologist Joe Letteri ("King Kong"), costumers, set decorators and the rest of his crew maintain.

[potential SPOILER paragraphs]
It's Bilbo who finally gets to face the dragon, arousing him from a long and comfortable slumber under his immense pile of glittery, tinkling gold that acts as a fire-breather wake-up call even to the tiny footsteps of a Hobbit. "I've been expecting you," the monster chides.

If the writers were thinking of biblical David and Goliath in this typically extended confrontation, the comparison has some correspondence. Brave Bilbo is massively outsized. But he uses this advantageously against the snorting monster who holds a cat and mouse debate with his lowly but wily visitor as a prelude to ending the Hobbit's life with a whip of his tail.

But Smaug isn't just the most fearsome dragon ever designed. Voiced by Cumberbatch, his snide, overbearing dialogue reveals a villainy only exceeded by extraordinary intelligence and intuitive mind-reading capability. It's a scene that makes for a fun and critically important turning point amidst a CGI rendering of inestimable wealth. Seamlessly detailed dragon skin and movements are astounding accomplishments of pseudo-reality.

Bilbo's mission of retrieving the luminescent Arkenstone (which was shaped by the dwarves of old) and playing hide-and-go-seek with a terrifying antagonist in order to accomplish it, is a highlight of a fantastical, somewhat whimsical saga. Yet...

I've always had a problem with (and think others do, as well) a movie in which interest in the characters is limited. Here, the character we hang our primary interest on is Bilbo. But one is hard pressed to root much for the ones who occupy most of the screen. Their ordeal isn't mine. As rendered in the screenplay, no single dwarf or all, as a group, ignites passionate interest or, even, a strong connection (unless, presumably, you've read Tolkien) and this failure somewhat limits the sympathetic fascination I'd like to have and that such a saga deserves.

When Gandalf is on screen, the magical promise of the film becomes elevated. Similarly with Legolas, whose haughty self-confidence is an intriguing invention. If I can't get more involved with the intended good guys, however "The Hobbit" series has a tenuous hold on my involvement.

But, now that the dragon has been reawakened...

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                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Martin Freeman is Bilbo Baggins
Anything but a warrior, but here he is with the gold.

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