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<i>The Hobbit — The Desolation of Smaug</i>: Desolate This!

The interesting thing about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is that while it's ostensibly meant to continue the adventure that began in the previous installment An Unexpected Journey, it's equally concerned with setting up what's to come. And I'm not talking about the third and final installment in Peter Jackson's super-sized adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's slender fantasy tale There and Back Again (coming your way next December). I mean the original three films that started his soon-to-be-six-chapter Middle-earth opus, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's not just the extended re-appearance of Orlando Bloom's elfin archer Legolas that brings to minds buzzwords like Fellowship, Towers and returning Kings: Desolation of Smaug is filled with allusions to, in-jokes about and extensive set-up for the War of the Ring that rocks Middle-earth either 60-odd years from now (movie time) or 10 years in the past (real world time). A more accurate title for the movie might be: The Hobbit: The Lord of the Rings Begins… Oh Yeah, and There's Some Dragon Named Smaug Flying About, Too.

In that respect, Jackson would seem to be following in the footsteps of George Lucas, whose Star Wars prequel trilogy laboriously re-laid the groundwork for Episodes IV-VI, providing exposition for even the least essential detail (like who built C-3PO) of the future/past films. Here's the key difference, though: The Hobbit movies are actually great fun to watch. Well, they are for me anyway. Although the objective side of my brain is well-aware that the new series is a step down from the previous trilogy in terms of narrative construction and high-stakes drama, I enjoy the Middle-earth that Jackson and his Weta-based army of digital wizards have created so much that I'm always pleased to book a return trip. In general, I regard The Hobbit movies as Jackson's answer to the Indiana Jones trilogy (that's right, trilogy -- I don't know any film by the name of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) rather than his Star Wars prequel series. They're episodic adventure films that move the hero around the map of his particular world, running, jumping and fighting his way through various action-packed set-pieces along the way.

It was my genuine affection for all things Middle-earth that sustained me through the admittedly long-winded first act of An Unexpected Journey, a thirty-minute sequence that found nebbishy Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (the unflappable Martin Freeman) welcoming a battalion of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), into his humble Bag End hole and putting up with their rampant singing and dish-throwing. Critics of that scene -- and boy, were there many -- will be happy to hear that The Desolation of Smaug wastes little time getting the characters on the road to the Lonely Mountain again. Following a brief flashback that handily recaps Thorin's motivations for undertaking this quest in the first place (short version: he wants his kingdom back), we pick up with Bilbo and his traveling party, which temporarily includes Gandalf (Ian McKellen) before the wizard bails to deal with a soon-to-be-familiar foe, outside the foreboding forest of Mirkwood.

As soon as they enter those woods, they (and the movie) are off and running along a foe-laden obstacle course. Among the various species they butt heads with are giant, hungry spiders, wrathful Wood Elves -- including Legolas, his snarly father, Thranduil (Lee Pace) and girl-Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a non-Tolkien character whose primary purpose is to bridge the series' significant gender gap -- that band of Orcs from the first movie that's still tracking them and the distrustful human population of Laketown, a port city that exists in the shadow of the Misty Mountains. And even after surviving all that, one more challenge looms: confronting the creature that wrested Thorin's birthright away, the slumbering giant of scaly skin, leathery wings and fiery breath who goes by the name, Smaug.

Much like Gollum in the previous trilogy, Smaug's appearance has been teased since the first Hobbit picture, with Jackson only granting us brief glimpses of the beast, holding back the full reveal for maximum visual impact. And also like Gollum, when Smaug finally does appear in all his glory, he's a motion capture-enhanced sight to behold. Giving his go-to mo-cap guy, Andy Serkis (who directed second-unit for the Hobbit trilogy in addition to briefly reprising his breakout role as Gollum), a break, Jackson instead taps Benedict Cumberbatch to chase this particular dragon and it's a terrific choice… and not just because it'll warm the hearts of Sherlock fans everywhere to see the new Holmes and Watson reunited in this context. The actor's rich baritone enhances Smaug's menace, which is already effectively rendered through the animation team's stellar design work. In contrast to past movie dragons, Smaug isn't just a neat special effects trick: he's an actual character and his extended encounter with Bilbo (which runs some 40 minutes) is by far the movie's high point.

As a Middle-earth softie, The Desolation of Smaug mostly provides what I've been hoping to get out of Jackson's second tour-of-duty in Tolkien land: spirited action scenes (there's a river-rafting barrel chase that's particularly well done), superior creature work incorporating both digital and practical effects, sweeping vistas of New Zealand and the general sense of craftsmanship that Jackson and everyone else involved invests in making this world a reality. That said, even I admit to being pleasantly disinterested in many of the new characters that Jackson has thrust into the narrative to pad out the running time, not to mention mildly annoyed by the wave of hyperlink references intended to unite the two trilogies into one continuous saga. (The most ridiculous of these has to be the scene that reveals the origin behind what's often referred to in fan circles as the "Flaming Vagina of Doom." Be careful when you Google that.) For me though, they're always going to exist separately. The magnificent introduction to Middle-earth followed by this enjoyable, but less special second honeymoon.

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